A copious amount of online butthurt has already been shed on the high-rise “monstrosities” that will afflict our skyline and urban landscape in the years to come – namely the Sliema Townhouse development and the Mriehel Towers, both of which were approved in a marathon session by the Planning Authority last Thursday.
But as tends to happen with such cases of social media-fueled ‘outcries’, the initial reactions always veer between the hysterical and the fragmented.
We have to accept that we need to work harder to get to the big picture here, even though the threat looming on the horizon does appear to be quite big and – yes – may just leave a permanent blot on that very same horizon pretty soon.
But as we try to sort through the fallout of the Planning Authority’s incendiary decision, it’s good to remember that…
It’s not about high rise
Let’s face it. It could have been a matter of expansive ‘low rise development’, or even the construction of underground passages to house similar office spaces or luxury developments. The anxiety people feel would have been the same – or at least similar – even if it wasn’t high rise per se that was being proposed. This is because we’ve seen the same class of people engage in similar projects in Malta over the years, to ends that did not benefit Maltese society in any holistic and long-term way. Instead, these projects become repositories for the rich and powerful, while giving off a veneer of ‘modernity’ that may give some of us an aesthetic kick, but very little else.
Also, the commonly trotted-out argument that it’s better to build upwards than horizontally is, in some ways, hard to contradict. There’s an airtight logic to it. But it’s also about as sensitive as saying that a woman who suffers from domestic abuse should “just leave” her partner (“what is she waiting for, it’s her own fault for staying, etc”). It’s completely superficial, and ignorant – deliberately or otherwise – of contextual realities.
Traffic and sewage are not just peripheral issues
For all intents and purposes, the entities helming these projects appear to be treating its side-effects as just a necessary evil. But during the long years in which the construction of this project is set to take place – a fact very much pertinent to the Sliema Townhouse development in particular – these issues will not be peripheral at all. Maltese residents know full well the effect of the traffic on day-to-day life. Choosing to simply increase it and then hoping band-aid solutions will be enough just stinks of carelessness. Same with sewage – what if something goes wrong?
The more you listen to these people, the more it becomes evident that the project comes first, not the citizens. Even Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has admitted that Malta’s infrastructure is ‘crumbling’. If we’re at such a vulnerable point, is it wise to greenlight these bulldozing projects?
And let’s not even get started on their advice to residents to simply ‘keep their windows shut’ during construction. Such a vulgar, blunt disregard for social well being would be hilarious if it wasn’t so callous. But the bullying hand of big business – perhaps it’s no accident that the towers have evoked caustic jabs at their ‘phallic’ nature – appears to have no qualms about adopting this attitude. And on that chauvinistic note…
"The fact that residents are simply told to keep their windows closed during construction is proof enough of the fact that they’re viewed as an inconvenience, and little else."
‘You hit like a girl’
Underpinning all this is a tendency to view any environmentally or socially sensitive commentary as stemming from ‘weak’ or effete individuals who are sheltered from the realities of the real world, or who enjoy indulging in utopian dreams on a whim.
This is a handy tactic, used to further bolster the predominant belief that might is right and that bigger is better. Vegetarians – and especially vegans – will have borne the brunt of this too. The towers, like meat-eaters who like to flaunt their appetite, evoke ancient feelings of virility, righteous violence and – ultimately – power. So it’s a case of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us – and if we can humiliate you for it as a weakling, all the better”.
Turning Malta into an airport
And at the end of the day, the logical end of a project like this would be to transform Malta into an airport for rich foreigners. The fact that residents are simply told to keep their windows closed during construction is proof enough of the fact that they’re viewed as an inconvenience, and little else. It’s true that attracting foreign investment is important for a small island like Malta. But the true way to win people’s hearts and minds while doing this – to say nothing of tourists who still like to visit Malta for its less ‘spoilt’ beauty – is to think up of creative solutions rather than quick fixes with a huge ‘wow’ factor like the high rise developments being proposed. And it’s also sobering to remember that…
This isn’t just a Malta issue
I’m currently writing this from Belgrade, where a very similar controversy is raging over the controversial Waterfront development. Which only hammers home the point that the issue is not just about Malta, and it’s not just about high rise. It’s about an economic model that finds it acceptable – even necessary – to ride roughshod over social cohesion in order to make a quick buck.
As such, it’s not the individual architects, developers or even governmental entities that are directly ‘to blame’ for this. They are simply players in an already rigged game that we’ve all – tacitly or otherwise – agreed to participate in. So any social or environmental criticism of this issue should take this reality as a starting point, instead of indulging in futile hand-wringing over how “stupid” or “mediocre” Malta is. However…
"It’s not just about high rise. It’s about an economic model that finds it acceptable – even necessary – to ride roughshod over social cohesion in order to make a quick buck"
Malta’s size cannot be ignored
The fact remains that Malta is simply too small. While we always seem happy enough to write off discontent about development as being the provenance of airy-fairy hippies, we seem to forget that those engaging with these kinds of projects are also in a fairy tale world of their own. One in which Malta’s surface is an apparently limitless expanse – both a desert and a fecund landscape, second only to the Old West in its potential for expansion and exploitation.
Where to next?
This can of high rise worms has come at an interesting point of intersection for Malta’s cultural and political landscape. In a lot of ways, of course, it’s more of the same: big business getting its way despite vociferous opposition, politicians placing the environment at the very bottom rung of its concerns, etc.
But it also comes in the wake of the Zonqor Point protest, which hinted at a more concentrated civil society moving from the periphery and into the centre – helped along, of course, by social media.
Time will tell whether this concentrated butt hurt will morph into bona fide ass-kicking.