Facts are important, but so are emotions.
When community members are already emotionally invested in an issue, rational arguments based on facts or technicalities are unlikely to achieve the intended effect to shift public opinion, at least in the short-term. People will simply shut down, stop listening, and protest. At that stage, what is more important is to acknowledge people’s feelings and listen to their genuine concerns.
Let’s call a spade a spade: the myriad beneficial projects undertaken by the relevant authorities in this country are at times jeopardised by a lack of clear and timely communication with the public and other stakeholders, which is essential for building trust and support for such projects. This communication should be structured and take place through a variety of channels, beginning before the project starts and continuing throughout its implementation.
Public awareness of the importance of trees for livable and sustainable communities has grown significantly in recent years. The public is no longer willing to accept heavy pruning or uprooting of trees as a necessary evil, especially if they are mature and form an essential element underpinning their place attachment – the bond between people and the spatial settings in which they have been raised or live. Thus, people nowadays demand a more compelling justification for such tree removal, particularly when it is related to infrastructural projects.
Valuing trees, but also clear and timely communication
Official figures show that, under a Labour administration, the net number of trees in the country has increased substantially. Alas, the public’s perception that the present government does not really value trees remains persistent, and is often the subject of jokes. This remains so despite the setting up of Project Green, an agency tasked with the upkeep of national parks and other public spaces, which has taken it upon itself to coordinate the transformation or regeneration of more than 80,000 square metres of land in 16 different sites around the Maltese islands into open, green spaces within the next two years in a €10 million investment. While Project Green’s communication with the public about its projects is exceptional, it has a hard time rowing upstream against a public perception that has been forged over years during which, despite growing public opposition to excessive tree removal, authorities ploughed ahead with infrastructure projects without explaining why tree clearing was unavoidable in the first place.
Mind you, there is no doubt that most of the infrastructural projects that have been carried out over the past decade and which required tree removal were eventually ackowledged as beneficial for the community even by those who had opposed the felling. In many cases, new trees have been planted in or around the projects to make up for the ones that had to be removed – frequently the number of new trees planted is substantially greater than the number of those removed. It is clear, however, that in several cases the authorities could have avoided a public backlash by communicating with the public in a timely and transparent manner.
The Mosta tree saga
The same faux pas has been committed again, in Mosta, this Monday. Twelve mature ficus trees on the side of the iconic Rotunda, at the very end of Constitution Street, were heavily pruned in preparation for uprooting as part of the extensive regeneration project being undertaken by Infrastructure Malta and the local council in the town’s main square. Following a public outcry, the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) issued a statement spelling out how the work will entail the transplanting of the trees to the area of Santa Margerita, in Mosta itself. The Authority explained that the ficus trees are a hardy species and normally survive transplanting if it is done at the appropriate time of the year, normally between November and February. It added that, for successful transplanting, trees need to be devoid of the canopy and the smaller branches to enable them to survive the move. The permit issued by ERA imposes the replanting of replacement trees, such as holm oaks and Judas trees, that would have a good canopy that allows for shade and bird nesting in Mosta Square. Reacting to a Press enquiry, Mosta Mayor and architect Chris Grech also assured that the trees would be replaced with indigenous ones.
I have spoken to the Mosta mayor a few times about these works in the past months, and his dedication to his town and its residents is evident in his commitment to the project. Having said that, he came out to explain the facts about the trees’ fate too late, as did ERA. Any government body or entity that needs to remove or replace trees, especially in urban areas, should be fully aware beforehand of the public backlash that they will likely face. People are now already emotionally charged and up in arms, after having been shocked by the sight of those “butchered” trees that have been part of their memories for decades. And who doesn’t feel upset to watch that distressing clip that has been making the rounds online, of hundreds of birds frantically flying around the Mosta square in search of their vanished roosting places? It reminded me of a surreal play I once watched in Luxembourg City, L’Homme qui ne retrouvait plus son pays.
For sure, as has been the case with other projects, the dust will settle, emotions will calm down, and public opinion will shift. While people may not understand the rationale behind today’s changes now, they will eventually come to appreciate it once the project is ready and they experience its benefits firsthand.
Yet, we must admit, this debacle has regrettably diverted attention away from the real priority: the much-needed and long-awaited renovation of the Rotunda square, one of the busiest traffic nodes in this part of the country, which residents will now be able to enjoy as a pedestrianised open space during festa week and on other special occasions.
Mayor Grech has assured that the square renovation project, which also includes new water and electricity distribution infrastructure and a solution to the flooding problem that has been a major concern for Mosta residents for years, will be completed by Christmas.