Urban and rural development: 'one-size-fits-all' does not cut it

Spatial planning for Malta is a task of unfolding complexities. Providing strategic direction to this ever-evolving journey; the SPED is Malta’s blueprint for sustainable development and environmental protection


Spatial planning for Malta is a task of unfolding complexities. Providing strategic direction to this ever-evolving journey; the SPED is Malta’s blueprint for sustainable development and environmental protection.

“With the SPED, stakeholders came together to create an overarching vision for Malta’s development that would curb urban sprawl. The idea was that all national policies and local plans would then work towards achieving the framework’s long-term targets,” Perit Joseph Scalpello, Assistant Director in the PA’s Policy Directorate, said.

Urban and rural areas, as well as their interlinkages and protection, feature strongly in the SPED. Malta’s urban zones are the country’s hub of economic activity, where people work, live and play. They accommodate our economic, infrastructural, health, transport, housing and social needs – but not all urban areas are the same.

“Distinct characteristics between settlements prompt development limitations to protect the character of each settlement, which is why the SPED designates a  hierarchy of urban areas. Malta’s principal urban area – its economic motor – is an arc of  built-up areas  leading from St Julian’s towards Qormi and around the ports, where most jobs and housing are located,” Scalpello said.

“Regional settlements are large built-up areas detached from the main urban agglomeration. Think of Żurrieq, Rabat, Mellieħa and St Paul’s Bay. Then, our small urban areas are villages around each regional settlement. This approach helps us understand that each area has an individuality that deserves preservation, which is enveloped in the need to protect and regenerate Malta’s heritage as a whole – the heart of our identity.”

 Perit Joseph Scalpello
Perit Joseph Scalpello

Beyond this, the aesthetics of architectural interventions are important because innovative design and construction can reduce eyesores and emissions, while also generating renewable energy from our rooftops, explains the Assistant Director.

The stragtegy begins by concentrating growth in developed areas away from rural land. Yet if urban sprawl is curtailed horizontally, development will reach upwards. So the question is, how much development do we actually need?

“To improve quality of life, development cannot exceed the carrying capacity of our urban areas, but interpreting this is contentious,” Scalpello said. “Infrastructurally, population growth beyond that which our water, transport or health systems can support would signify overdevelopment. But visually, even if we could accommodate growth, our streetscapes’ aesthetics can’t be forgotten. And then there’s Malta’s reliance on cars. Ultimately, Malta’s development issues are always rooted in population growth and car dependency.”

Preventing overdevelopment from spilling into rural areas underpins Malta’s development zone boundaries. Our rural land sustains the population and must be protected for its agricultural and recreational purposes.

“We escape to the countryside for clean air, less traffic and more biodiversity,” stresses Perit Scalpello. “But it also sustains agriculture, which is an economic  activity that can be environmentally danaging, resulting from large animal farms, greenhouses, pesticides and land reclamation that covers garigue in soil. To defend our natural habitats, we must control agricultural development because the value of land is not only economic.”

The SPED advocates for diversification to keep agriculture viable without overdevelopment. The idea is that farmers can branch into activities that are not necessarily food production but are still related to it. But, again, definitions of what constitutes deversification of the rural economy can become murky.

“Let’s talk about agrotourism – is it simply a hotel located in the countryside, or does it imply participation in agricultural activities?” Scalpello said. “The two are often conflated, leading to the relocation of conventional tourism from urban to rural areas. This is harmful and a trigger for urban sprawl and overdevelopment.

“Similarly, the SPED stipulates that rural areas are for ‘informal recreation’, such as walking, cycling and enjoying nature , and not construction under the guise of recreation, such as country retreats or sports facilities. We emphasise the need for untarmacked, country trails to make our environment more publicly accessible. But we’re battling a double whammy: as farmers opt for other economic activities and abandon agricultural land, overdevelopment is also occurring as buildings appear where they shouldn’t.”

Looking ahead to the SPED’s first revision, Scalpello said that the issues and objectives raised five years ago are even more relevant now. “We must continue prioritising our island’s landscape in our spatial vision, local policies and everyday actions because any damage, once inflicted, is practically irreversible – and the responsibility lies on all of our shoulders.”

Malta’s Strategic Plan for Environment and Development can be accessed via: https://www.pa.org.mt/strategic-plan

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