Urban jungle

▪️ Urban jungle ▪️ Take care

A news item that caught my attention recently was a report in l-orizzont about a partnership between the University of Malta, architecture firm AP Valletta, and the HSBC Malta Foundation aimed at harnessing nature-based solutions to address local urban planning challenges.

According to the promoters, the project will commence with a pilot at San Ġorġ Preca College in Ħamrun, focusing on carbon sequestration and temperature regulation in urban settings. A key component of the project is the development of a toolkit designed to facilitate the replication of these solutions on a national scale.  Following the design phase of the pilot project, a partnership with Project Green will ensure the effective implementation of the strategies at the educational college, with a thorough assessment of the environmental impact and the level of community engagement.

The proposed intervention at San Ġorġ Preca College in Ħamrun.

First of all, hats off to the three entities concerned for an initiative that marks what could be a significant step towards the integration of nature-based solutions into Malta’s urban development strategies.

The world’s urban areas are more densely populated and more interconnected than ever before.  Never more so than in Malta, where the growth in population has led to an increased population density, rising from 1,337 residents per km² in 2012 to 1,721 per km² in 2022.  If one includes 55,342 tourists per day on average, this adds 175 persons per km².

The most densely populated district in 2022 was the Northern Harbour district, with 7,019 residents per km².   But if you are staggered by the density, consider that Sliema has a population density of 17,377 residents per km² compared to Barcelona’s 15,991.

While urbanisation increases social and economic advantages, it also brings increasing vulnerabilities – today’s new normal requires models of governance that mitigate risk and respond to evolving challenges.  Business-as-usual models of reactive and siloed decision-making will not generate the fundamental strength and flexibility essential for cities to thrive in the face of the acute shocks and chronic stresses of the 21st century.

While our cities may not be subject to sudden and intense shocks   ̶   earthquakes, storms, and terrorist attacks   ̶   that threaten their communities like in other countries,  the impact of smaller shocks   ̶   flooding, inadequate electricity, and public transportation systems   ̶  can generate chronic stresses that weaken the communities concerned over time.  It is rare that a city experiences just one type of challenge at a time. Instead, cities are confronted by combinations of acute shocks and chronic stresses.

So, what is the urban resilience referred to in the project referred to above?  It is really about the capacity of a city’s systems, businesses, institutions, communities, and individuals to survive, adapt, and thrive, no matter what chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.  By strengthening its underlying fabric and deepening its understanding of the risks that threaten its stability, a city can improve its overall trajectory and the well-being of its citizens; it can prosper in spite of rising challenges.

Urban resilience demands that cities look at their capacities and their risks, including through meaningful engagement with the most vulnerable members of a community. This is not easy work.  The more so, because in Malta the local councils of cities are almost totally absent from the holistic development and management of their sustainability.  This function is totally monopolised by the central authorities and government entities. 

Yet, if rapid urban growth isn’t planned for properly, the number of people exposed to the negative effects of urbanisation and risks will continue to increase.  These include hazards that often have ‘cascading effects’   ̶   hazards like flooding or traffic congestion that can trigger other hazards.  For example, flooding can cause power outages that make it harder for people to recover or can compromise water and sanitation systems.

Photo: Efrem Efre.

Climate change only makes the risks worse.  The electricity cuts we suffered last summer were a first warning that cities are more vulnerable to such risks than rural areas.  Fires or disasters in high-rise buildings concentrated in a small area could also have disastrous effects.  Are we really prepared for them, even considering the huge traffic volumes which can complicate rescue and disaster responses?

One must ask whether some of our cities might be becoming urban jungles.  I might be exaggerating a bit, but not much.  For example, Malta’s own New Urban Agenda talks of ensuring access to public spaces including streets, sidewalks, and cycling lanes.  Yet, people living in densely populated cities like Sliema or Valletta (8,500/km²) are up in arms about all the pavements taken over by sidewalk cafes and restaurants.  Navigating a pram through the chairs and tables requires the skill of a master mariner.  Cycling lanes … oh, forget that.

The plan also talks of adequate and affordable housing.  Really?  Who can afford to live in Paceville unless he has owned a property for donkey’s years?   Modern city planning   requires that high-class accommodation is complemented by affordable housing for lower-income groups, so that working class people can live alongside rich ones. 

Perhaps one of the most famous examples is Vienna, which is recognised for its unique social housing programme and where the government owns 25 percent of the city’s housing stock. In Vienna, the city buys land deemed suitable for residential development and retains control over the type and nature of development. It then selects a developer, sells the land to the developer, the developer gets a loan under favourable terms, and then builds social housing that meets such criteria as architectural quality, environmental performance, social sustainability, and reasonable rent levels.  In contrast, in Malta the government hands over land to developers on concessionary terms so they can develop high-end apartments, shops, and hotels for their private gain.

Often referred to as a “socialist utopia” realised, the Wohnpark Alt Erlaa is a large Vienna apartment complex for low-income families.

Blaming the government alone is reductive.  Residents sometimes conspire in making housing availability selective, with their retrograde anti-social views.  It wasn’t that long ago that Sliema residents objected to Fr Marcellino opening a soup kitchen in their city.  That would have meant admitting that they have “less worthy” people living next to them; they would probably have applauded him had he announced he would be encouraging the less-fortunate folk to abandon the city and go live in Ħal Farruġ.

Take care

Europe is facing a staggering shortage of doctors and other healthcare workers. “There is no health without a health workforce,” says Hans Kluge, regional director for Europe for the World Health Organisation. But this is exactly what the European Union is facing. In 2022, a WHO report drawing on data from over 50 countries showed the overwhelming extent of the health workforce shortage in the region.

Last year the European Health Forum Gastein heard from experts that we could be facing a crippling shortage of nearly 1.8 million healthcare workers. The numbers are climbing. In some countries there are just 2.4 doctors for every 1,000 people. That’s not a gap. It’s a gulf.

In 2021 Malta had 434.3 doctors per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 410. 5 in Italy and 429.6 in Bulgaria. As far as other healthcare and care workers are concerned, Malta had 1,285.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 1,681.1 in Italy and 475.8 in Bulgaria.

Sandra Gallina, director general for health and food safety at the European Commission, says that shortages are not a new problem. “There are long term problems with staff retention, money, motivation, upskilling, and with medical deserts appearing,” she says. “And there is a big hoovering up of staff by the private sector from the public sector.” The problem is the long term vision   ̶   where do we get the staff and how do we cope with staff shortages?

According to data obtained by the Times of Malta from the University of Malta, the number of nurses graduating last year was the lowest in a decade, with only 83 qualifying in the much-needed profession compared to 149 the previous year.  Between 2013 and 2022, the number of nursing graduates fluctuated bet­ween 126 and 180 graduates a year, but in 2023 it plunged down.

The nurses’ union has repeatedly drawn attention to the shortage of staff, particularly as this was leading to burnout and resignations.  Annual resignations in 2019 and 2020 hovered around 50 and doubled in 2021 and 2022. The hospital often tries to make up for shortages by recruiting foreign nurses.  But competition from other countries has often led to an exodus of foreign nurses from Malta towards Germany and other European countries.

Photo: EVG Kowalievska.

Godfrey Baldacchino, Professor of Sociology, says that the labour shortage problem is compounded by the fact that various nursing and paramedical staff consider Malta to be a transit destination; they only stay long enough to secure enough qualifications and experience required to proceed to better paying locations.

“Things are bleak. We are highly dependent on third country nationals,” says Paul Pace of the nurses’ union. It appears that the sector is not attracting as many foreign nurses as was hoped. This might be due to the penalty that foreign healthcare workers must pay on leaving their private employer before their contract expires as well as delays in processing paperwork.

It is too early to say whether the better working conditions agreed between the government and the nurses’ union in late 2023 will stem the flow of resignations or encourage students to take up nursing studies.  Salaries on their own won’t do the trick.  In fact, the so-called 2023 Bucharest Declaration called for political action to improve the recruitment and retention of health and care workers, reinforce health workforce supply mechanisms, optimise the performance of the health and care workforce, and increase public investment in workforce education, development, and protection.

There is no doubt that this problem will not go away.  On the contrary it is likely to get worse when an announced new hospital comes on stream.  Our migration policy is mostly to blame, concentrating as it does merely on filling shortages in the short-term.  Before we start offering a path to third-country nationals to put down roots in Malta, the situation will remain unstable, if not get worse.

Main photo: Efrem Efre

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