The chief planner’s interview with the Times of Malta yesterday makes for depressing reading. Martin Saliba dismisses as ‘sentimental’ and ‘nostalgic’ the effort of isolated and ignored campaigners to push back against the wilful destruction of our urban and rural landscape.
His arguments are replete with contradictions. He has “his eyes” on the losses of heritage and the sacrifice of the character of our streets, but he uses them to watch them being torn down. He has cold sympathy for nostalgia but he is more concerned with the pressure from people who are faced with rejections of the monstrosities they want to build and, apparently to our loss, we never got to hear about.
He thinks property is sacred in a democracy and that, it seems, includes the right to ruin one’s own garden.
Then he makes the argument of progress. Malta is wealthy, the demands of its economy are high. This is modernisation, as he calls it. Make way for New Melita: the pitstop of the ultra-rich.
It’s not Martin Saliba’s job to convince us whether not managing building and not restraining construction and not promoting aesthetics are enlightened or misguided policies. Those policies are decided by politicians far above his pay grade. His job is to do as he’s told, which he is. He’s told to do fuck all and he does it, in spite of his protestations to the contrary.
After all, as he says in his own defence, you need to go out there and see what the reality is. And out there the reality is that the country is being stoned into dusty oblivion. It is being flattened by carpet bombing, holes are punctured through its surface, and thorns sprout on its back like random needles on a bald sea urchin.
I can’t pass on the use of the word ‘modernity’ in this context without some sort of comment. The use of the term shows just how the sort of policy that is being driven here is outdated, stuck somewhere in the 1950s – if not the 1850s – and completely inappropriate for our time.
The use of the term ‘modernity’ as a principle of policy-making is time travel to a callous and over-simplified past soaked in an ideology of violent social engineering, of generating progress by wrecking ball, of creating communities by burning down forests and all that live within them.
Martin Saliba speaks with the naive excitement of Victorian railway builders or canal diggers. Civilisation has evolved since those heady, smoky days. The choice we have is not simply between ‘progress’ and ‘sentimental’ nihilism. Policy making, we should expect, should be more nuanced than choosing between the Space Age and the Stone Age.
We also no longer see progress in Whiggish terms, or Hegelian terms if you prefer. We do not think that change is always and necessarily for the better. History does not always go forwards and upwards. Our own experience of this tells us so. Martin Saliba speaks with little regret about the old Tower Road waterfront. The inability to recognise that just because the building fronts are taller now does not necessarily mean Sliema is better for it is the point where sensibility to sustainability breaks ranks with the insatiable need for what they euphemistically and misleadingly call development. Bigger and newer is not necessarily better.
Buildings – infrastructure, dwellings, public spaces – do not justify themselves alone. They are justified by utility and function but also by sustainability and how they fit in the environment which they will change by virtue of their mere existence.
Quality of life is not measured just by roads and air-conditioning units as redundant ‘modernity’ had us believe. It is also measured by light, air, space, the ability to look in the distance, mobility, and inclusion.
We turn to planners to imagine for us a city on the hill, comfortable, safe, prosperous, clean, beautiful, indigenous, diverse, harmonious, healthy and fair. They need to do more than imagine it. They need to steer us towards it, proposing policies that encourage us to take decisions that are consistent with that vision. They need to persuade us of that vision and have the community own it and build it as their legacy for future generations.
Martin Saliba’s bosses, and therefore Martin Saliba’s staff, are not thinking of a city on the hill. They are not imagining a future home for our children. They are living in the present, which from the point of view of the consequential future we are creating is necessarily the egoistic collapse of a cancerous past. Their ‘planning’ is made up of wider, faster, straighter roads for cars to rush through. It is made of taller buildings so that people do more and more with their small speck of land. It is a mind of metal and concrete and a disregard for life itself.
The drive for modernity came before the realisation that we needed to intervene in the economy to protect the vulnerable. Martin Saliba speaks in terms of the rights of land owners to enjoy the maximum potential value of their property. The language would have been fitting for a Whig politician of the 19th century. It’s as if Socialism never existed with this guy. And it’s as if Socialism never existed for his political bosses.
People fall off heights on our construction sites like underage miners in Welsh coal mines. Cranes sprout up anywhere and anytime like chimneys of the industrial revolution. The dust bellows from excavation spots like debris from Dickensian workhouses. Dark and long shadows are cast over depressed inner-city areas where property prices outperform their quality, where infrastructure is neglected and where the poor are herded into ghettoes. Speak of Dickensian. They used the term ‘modern’ in the 19th century a lot too.
The drive for modernity came before the realisation that a car for every family signified a limit on how many families can fit in a neighbourhood without having to live in their cars. Nothing in Martin Saliba’s remarks suggests fresh thinking about changes in our behaviour.
It’s not just transport. There’s nothing about the sustainability of our resources, the use, conservation and provision of water for all these buildings, the breathability of our air, and just how pleasant it is going to be to sit in a city park and look up at the buildings that surround it.
Martin Saliba sheds no tears. Houses, apparently, need to be knocked down because other houses in the same street have already been knocked down. ‘An eye for an eye’ for our Mosaic construction age: a demolished architectural inheritance for every other demolished architectural inheritance. Of course, the logical extension of Mosaic law would eventually make us all blind. Which would help given that we’d also be living in ugly streets.
The realisation that this was unproductive and illogical is far older than modernity. When Valletta was built, there were strict rules about building lines, heights, water management, hygiene, security, aesthetics and much else. That is why we inherit such a splendid capital city. A city indeed built by gentlemen though whether we are ladies and gentlemen deserving of that description today is a matter of some controversy. No one suggests the Knights were democratic. But it is positively uninformed to suggest that urban aesthetics are the monopoly of tyrannies of the aesthetes.
The cities of art, beauty, space and access we visit all over democratic Europe are democratic because they are not about the land-owners’ right to do as they please. They are also about everyone’s right to air, light and space, dignified living conditions, accessible mobility, and a healthy environment.
Martin Saliba confuses modernity, with unbridled, unrestrained, pre-modern capitalism unblemished by scientific innovation, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.
When planners across the world worry about climate change and resource management, Martin Saliba worries about a house owner’s “right” to replace their home with misshapen Titans of faceless concrete hulks.
When planners across the world think about the health of children yet to be born, Martin Saliba and his Planning Authority think about the horde of contractors and little land owners foaming at the mouth and chanting their entire four-word vocabulary: “more, more and more”.
What is happening to our country has nothing to do with modernity, even less so, democracy. This is barbaric, destructive greed, dismantling cathedrals to use the stones as catapult fodder for the next siege and the rubble to hold down misshapen tents.
The right to the enjoyment of property in a democracy does not exist in isolation and does not crush other rights. It cannot be taken to extremes and still call itself a right. No one can buy St Paul’s Cathedral to turn it into a lucrative office block with a view of the river in downtown London. No one is entitled to force everyone else to live in an ugly, dirty, unfair city. No one has the right to destroy the memory of our heritage. No one has the right to consume natural resources without replenishment or burn out the atmosphere in their waste.
Of course, we have all been seeing the signs and some have been protesting loudly for many years. It really is the time to panic though, when the Planning Authority’s chief does not have the decency to pretend to be on the side of conservation and sustainability and give us the hollow excuse that the monstrosities that have been allowed fell through cracks he is seeking to plaster.
Instead, he positively campaigns for ‘modernisation’ like an enthusiastic brown shirt burning books of history, architecture, sociology and other decadent literature.
It is time to realise that given this officially pronounced attitude, there is no planning and by the implicit abdication of the responsibilities of the State towards our past and our future, there is no authority either. There is instead anarchy where the oligarchs with the wrecking balls and the yellow metal have their way and consume our very home.
Martin Saliba’s history may be a bit sketchy. There were once a politician and his favourite town planner who spoke of the moral imperative of modernity. There would be no sentimentality about the demolition of old cityscapes. Greater cities would be built in their place, connected by wider highways, served by modern infrastructure. In those cities, there would be no tears for a decadent past. The past would be forgotten and replaced by a thousand-year Reich.
Albert Speer was not a sentimentalist. He wasn’t a democrat either.
Of course, we are not dealing with Nazis here. Nothing near as scary but comparably oblivious to a sense of time and of timeless beauty and equally comparably mediocre. The right reaction in a democracy would be to resist this wanton destruction and to do more with the enjoyment of our property. We never truly own a country or even a house. We take care of it temporarily and try to leave it in decent shape for those that follow us.
If we wait for the Planning Authority to tell us how best to do that, before we know it, the country we leave behind will be unsightly. And the home unliveable.