Making a difference in Malta’s environmental sustainability

Quite often, sustainability initiatives fail to garner public interest or involvement until they become fodder for critique. To empower the public to get involved in Malta’s Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED), Michelle Borg from the Planning Authority discusses why this is crucial to safeguarding Malta’s environment


Whatever the project or goal, successful implementation relies on a critical ingredient: strategic vision. Then comes detailed planning and evaluation of submitted planning proposals, but everything must begin with robust direction. Malta’s Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED) was enacted in 2015 to serve this purpose. It is the country’s jumping-off point for long-term sustainable development and environmental protection when zoning land and marine space for future use.

Michelle Borg, Green and Blue Development Unit Manager at Malta’s Planning Authority (PA), believes that renewed commitment to the SPED’s strategic objectives is crucial, particularly in terms of Malta’s physical capacity. “Big-picture planning can be tricky to get one’s head around, particularly when multiple players are pushing their respective  ambitions, but it certainly matters,” says Ms Borg.

“Effective spatial planning seeks to balance future socio-economic needs based on population projections and sectoral policies with the need to maintain good environmental quality, including protection of natural resources and biodiversity. It is key to specific, incremental and sustainable success. The Structure Plan of 1992 provided a turnaround in strategic policy making for land use. Over the years other detailed plans and policies were approved to guide diversified economic growth, social well being and stronger environmental safeguards by different entities. The challenges of the Maltese Islands, twenty years later, were very different from the early 1990s and this demanded a new strategic direction to guide Malta’s use of its space.”

The SPED therefore identifies links between Malta’s urban development and environmental issues. It recognises that the fact that national ambitions for economic growth do not always consider the resulting implications on the environment and asserts that “sustainable development necessitates a shift whereby development gradually works with and safeguards the environment and the natural resources it requires.”

“The pressing environmental issues pinpointed in the SPED largely relate to having a dense population within a small land territory,” continues Ms Borg. “Unsustainable consumption and a lack of awareness of the connections between our socio-economic activities and environmental processes threaten the quality of our lives and natural surroundings.

 Michelle Borg from the Planning Authority
Michelle Borg from the Planning Authority

“In 2015, we linked the issue of waste management to the lack of uptake in waste separation and resulting increased demand for landfills, which places a strain on physical space. Malta’s air quality was – and remains – of concern. Besides traffic and energy generation, planners acknowledged that streetscapes with tall buildings could lead to localised canyon effect where emissions can remain trapped, so the idea of increasing urban open spaces as green lungs was pursued. We also pushed for the rural area to be primarily used for agriculture and informal recreation.”

“What’s more, the first Water Catchment Management Plan at the time illustrated that Malta’s freshwater resources are limited and threatened by over-abstraction and nitrate pollution. We advocated for increased rainwater harvesting, stormwater capture and reduced soil sealing, which would support natural recharge of our aquifers. This is how SPED incorporated sectoral issues within an overarching national spatial framework.”

Targeting Malta’s environmental issues, the SPED outlines three environmental objectives to guide spatial planning policies and decisions. Firstly, safeguarding Malta’s environment from pollution and the use of chemicals is paramount. Secondly, the efficient use of resources is associated specifically with stone, water and soil, as well as waste management that protects environmental processes and minimises impact on cultural heritage, landscape and human health. Finally, it also gives direction for preserving and enhancing our biodiversity and geology.

“The SPED, however, is just the beginning. These concepts must then be explicitly included in subsidiary plans, policies, and taken up when assessing development proposals,” explains Ms Borg. “There remains a gap between the SPED’s philosophy and the reality on the ground in many respects. Whether it’s the use of green infrastructure, pushing for more efficient use of the same space by different users to reduce demand for more land take or questioning the need for further excavations that generate tons of construction and demolition waste, consolidated action towards implementing our national spatial strategy for environmental protection can be improved – but only with commitment from many different parties.”

Mindful that the issues of 2015 are just as relevant today, Ms Borg believes that each Maltese resident holds the power to trigger collective effort. “The SPED is a tool that is open for the public to read and use,” Ms Borg stresses. “As the plan reaches its five-year revision, this is the time for the public to get involved in solidifying our strategic direction through the PA’s public consultation process. The revised SPED will influence other planning policies and eventual PA application assessments, so the time for the public to sway its direction is now.”

Malta’s Strategic Plan for Environment and Development can be accessed via:

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