Urban respite: the evolution of our green spaces

Project Green is currently collaborating with other entities and identifying parcels of land that are found within development zones. These parcels of land are being identified to be used for green purposes; whether converted into gardens, used for agriculture, or used in any other way that promotes utilised, open space.

A substantial €8 million injection from EU funds will revitalise four prominent open spaces in Fgura, Bormla, Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq, and Birżebbuġa.

Here’s a concise overview of the key components of each plan:

  • In Fgura and Bormla, a project is underway to create a combined open space with Cottoner Garden, covering 100,000 square meters. This open space aims to cater to the needs of the local communities in a densely populated area. The current site, situated outside the development zone and close to the San Klement Park, is currently desolate with imposing walls, making it inaccessible.
  • In Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq, a large untidy plot that is currently used as a car park is going to be transformed into a family park with a designated parking area. Spanning 7,400 square meters, this green space will be equivalent to the size of a large football field.
  • In April last year, the first phase of Bengħajsa Park was inaugurated in Birżebbuġa. Originally planned to be an extension of the Freeport, this green area covers 17,000 square meters—an expanse equivalent to three football fields—and is home to more than 4,000 trees. The freshly announced project is this park’s second phase, aiming to double its size, introduce more greenery, and incorporate additional amenities such as a parking lot.

A splash of green where you can see it

The Journal delved into this investment with Steve Ellul, the CEO of Project Green, who will be at the helm of these projects.

While we understand the importance of creating open spaces in designated areas, we argue that people really want to see green spots wherever they are. Let’s face it: many of us struggle to keep up with daily life, and it’s almost impossible to make time to visit specific green areas every day.

Steve Ellul’s perspective is interesting. He started off by saying that the project in Fgura and Bormla challenges the conventional idea that open spaces are exclusively found in places outside urban areas, like Ta’ Qali. Instead, as in the case of Fgura and Bormla, large open spaces will be created where people reside or work, countering the notion that such spaces are limited to certain areas.

He explains that Project Green is working on projects in 16 communities with a €10 million budget, in collaboration with different local councils and NGOs. The emphasis here was on crafting relatively small open spaces within development zones or close to residential areas, aiming to enhance community well-being and accessibility. Local Councils responded well to this call, and more than 70 applications were submitted by local councils within the span of four weeks.

That’s great, but it doesn’t quench our thirst for green areas that are literally round the corner. We ask whether every plot of land that is inside a development zone is bound to be built, and whether importance should be given to green pockets before permits are granted.

This is when Ellul spills the beans: Project Green is currently collaborating with other entities and identifying parcels of land that are found within development zones. These parcels of land are being identified to be used for green purposes; whether converted into gardens, used for agriculture, or used in any other way that promotes utilised, open space.

Steve Ellul, CEO of Project Green

Why not just let it be?

Why not leave the land as is, without any human intervention, we ask? Ellul believes that making space usable for green purposes further protects it against eventual development.

“It’s important to understand that there were areas that were untouched and were put inside development zones in 2006. That was a mistake. I think the time has come to look at this situation and see what we can correct. The recent case of Ħondoq ir-Rummien in Gozo is a good example. The area could have been developed for touristic and commercial purposes, but decisions were taken to save it and make an afforestation project out of it,” says Ellul.

We asked him whether it made sense to speak of large afforestation projects, whilst decisions are taken for trees in the heart of a town, like Mosta, to be removed (that decision had nothing to do with Project Green, but was a unanimous decision taken by the locality’s local council).

Ellul did not shy away from emphasising that every project that is undertaken around the islands must impact people’s quality of life positively and must result in the least possible environmental impact. He also insisted that education and communication about the various stages of such projects are crucial to avoid unnecessary frustration.

“Everyone must listen more accurately to make sure that planning reflects the wants and aspirations of people today,” said Ellul.

To cite an example in which progress and the environment are beautifully intertwined, Ellul mentioned Bosco Verticale. Translated as the “Vertical Forest”, this is a notable architectural project in Milan, Italy. What sets it apart is the extensive greenery integrated into the façade of the buildings. The towers are adorned with a variety of trees, shrubs, and plants on numerous balconies, creating a vertical forest effect.

“The growth of the economy cannot be calculated solely in economic terms anymore, but it has to be closely tied to people’s wellbeing,” said Ellul.

Increasing awareness and reducing nuisance

One challenge that he mentions is the fact that sometimes, individuals are unaware that green, communal areas are close to them. For instance, during an event being held in San Klement Park, residents from neareby areas said to him that they were not aware of the space before and had, therefore, never visited.

Project Green has recently launched a pilot project at the Ta’ Qali Petting Farm, specifically designed to collect aggregated data encompassing demographics, attendance, and mobility patterns of park visitors. The primary goal is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics of those entering the parks, the timing of their visits, and other pertinent details. This information plays a vital role in enabling Project Green to tailor their open spaces effectively to address the specific needs of the community. It is crucial to highlight that all data collection adheres to the stipulations of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a thorough data privacy and protection regulation mandated by the European Union.

Moving into its second phase, the pilot initiative aims to harness AI infrastructure to enhance the quality of life for visitors, workers, and resident animals at the park. Additionally, this phase seeks to provide management with more detailed data on park usage. Some of the new initiatives include alerting park wardens to detected falls, unwarranted pen intrusion, and instances of vandalism, demonstrating Project Green’s commitment to leveraging technology for the benefit of both visitors and the park environment.

Ellul explains that the interest in open spaces goes beyond the locals who live in the area, and even beyond local shores. In fact, EY’s Attractiveness Survey for Malta, published last October, states that “a quarter of companies believe Malta’s environment is critical to their investment strategies, while half believe it is somewhat important”. In fact, companies look for favorable taxation policies, a good talent pool, and green, open spaces when they consider Malta as a viable destination for their business.

This brought us to another challenge that both businesses and many of us face. Although many will agree that implementing green projects is a good idea, none of us like the inconvenience that is caused until such projects are completed.

“We are very careful about this,” says Ellul. “For example, in Vjal il-Riħan, San Gwann, we are splitting works into different phases, so that both residents and local communities are not impacted negatively by ongoing works.”

Vjal ir-Riħan currently includes an open space of 2,183 square metres. Through the proposed new green open space, Project Green will increase it to 7,200 square metres and ensure that the two sides of San Gwann, which are currently separated by Vjal ir-Riħan, one of Malta’s busiest roads, are reconnected with safer, car-free, pedestrian pathways.

In conclusion

In a densely populated island such as ours, striking an equilibrium between expansive engineered green spaces and smaller, green, pockets within communities is paramount.

While large-scale projects contribute to our overall well-being, the identification of green pockets within development zones ensures that more corners in our communities are touched by nature. We feel that this balance is important for people to feel like they can breathe again, whether they live in town and village centres or not.

 It’s about creating a tapestry where engineered green spaces and community green pockets blend, in an era when everyone seems to realise that quality of life is as as important as economic growth.

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