A plan for Cottonera

With the Strategy for Cottonera now in implementation phase, work has begun to not just safeguard the Cottonera region but to ensure it evolves and thrives well into the future – all thanks to careful planning. Here, Planning Authority official Joseph Gauci explains why planning really is key to the future success of our society’s story

“Planning is critical to the regeneration of our entire society.” “Planning is critical to the regeneration of our entire society”
“Planning is critical to the regeneration of our entire society.” “Planning is critical to the regeneration of our entire society”

There are few jewels in Malta’s crown as unique as the Three Cities. Set across from Valletta in the middle of the Grand Harbour, they are a cacophony of people, places, architecture, and activities that have evolved over the centuries.

Today, this location truly is one of the island’s most vibrant. But it was not long ago that the Three Cities, or Cottonera as they are also known, felt very different and much of its rich heritage risked being lost to depredation and disrepair. Thankfully, its incredible history and buildings began to draw people to it, and both private and public projects have seen it brought to life in ways that may have seemed impossible just a couple of decades ago.

Now, attention is back on Cottonera to see through the implementation of the Strategy for Cottonera, which was announced by the Government in 2018. That strategy was drawn up with numerous stakeholders at its helm, including the Planning Authority – led by a Steering Committee chaired by Glenn Bedingfield.

Planning Authority official Joseph Gauci
Planning Authority official Joseph Gauci

“When it was being drawn up, the Strategy was designed to improve the social and environmental make up of the Cottonera area,” Mr Gauci explains. “In the years prior, it was clear that Valletta has received much attention and numerous upgrades, and that now was the time to shift focus to this important region too.”

The creation of the strategy took several months and the PA, as one of the contributing stakeholders, was engaged to help prepare it. The Authority had previously worked on the Strategy for Valletta, which meant it was experienced as to the best approach to take to find and formulate the information needed.

“Often, planning is associated with physical work, such as the regeneration of buildings,” Mr Gauci continues, adding that it is so important to humanise the planning process. “But planning is critical to the regeneration of our entire society.”

In fact, what made the Cottonera Strategy document different is that it put people first. “You cannot decouple socioeconomic contexts from what is happening from a physical point of view,” he explains. “Whenever plans do focus just on the physical – like roads or buildings – things do improve but not holistically. On top of that, locals often feel left out because the home they once knew and understood has been gentrified and has outgrown them.”

Rather than risk this happening in Cottonera, the Strategy kickstarted a bottom-up consultation process by involving key stakeholders; ranging from local residents to NGOs operating in the area, to the Local Councils, amongst which a survey was carried out amongst Cottonera residents. “We asked them what they liked and what they didn’t, and the results were really interesting,” he says. “It turned out over 60 per cent were happy and didn’t wany anything major to change, while others highlighted issues with parking, public space management, a lack of housing, a lack of childcare facilities, and problems with the general upkeep of the region. It provided incredible insight for us to be able to make our recommendations.”

Implementing the Cottonera Strategy

The Strategy was crafted around the Government’s vision to improve life for the people of Cottonera. As a result, it focuses on three key objectives: to improve social capital, upgrade the urban environment, and increase business attractiveness within the rich and diverse cultural landscape of Cottonera. As a first step, a Foundation for Cottonera was set up with the scope of coordinating and, where necessary, spearheading the various initiatives and works taking place in the area.

“It’s all about strengthening the community and raising a sense of belonging,” Mr Gauci goes on to say. “Each of the key points in the Strategy will now be implemented in different ways.”

For instance, there will be better use of existing social and community facilities. “Some buildings are underutilised, which isn’t ideal in a place that lacks community space. One such project could be better use of existing community facilities to provide facilities for the elderly, children, young people, and the disadvantaged.”

Similarly, opportunities will be identified for affordable housing in the hope of attracting young homebuyers to the area, while a land-ownership survey will identify vacant properties to kick-start the investment process in a targeted manner.

The urban environment will also be upgraded. Projects here will focus on the appreciation of heritage sites, the creation or improvement of open public spaces, and the upgrading of infrastructure.

“The goal here is to make the built environment work for the people that live or work here, and to really maximise the space that’s available,” Mr Gauci says.

Finally, the implementation of the strategy will also help to increase business attractiveness in a number of ways, including by attracting major investors to tap into the potential of sites in the region. “Business brings workers, young families and tourists to the area,” he continues, “which will in turn breathe new life into the region and help to continue its development for generations to come. And that is exactly what’s needed.”

So, as the strategy starts to be implemented in earnest, Mr Gauci hopes it will have a lasting impact on the social dimension of the entire region and beyond. “It is our goal to see an area that was once associated with social issues now considered to be an exciting success. To me, the potential for Cottonera is very strong,” he concludes.

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