Would it not be great to walk from Sliema to Valletta on a pedestrian bridge? When I read about this proposal, I gave it an instinctive thumbs-up.
The proposal, by London-based celebrated architect Konrad Xuereb, is reportedly estimated to cost about €8 million and would link Tignè Point to the Valletta gun post. It would add another option for transport between the two localities.
If another proposal, this time by AX Holdings is approved, there would also be added transport options through a tunnel beneath Valletta, which connects Sliema to Cottonera by ferry.
Such multi-modal forms of connection are commonplace in many towns and cities across the world and they can offer practical solutions to combat Malta’s traffic challenges. Interestingly, this newspaper reports (August 23) that, about 60 years ago, a cable-car project was proposed across Marsamxett Harbour, from Sliema Ferries to Hastings Garden, in Valletta, with Manoel Island in between. As we know, this project never took off.
But let’s go back to the future.
Architect Xuereb is arguing that his 300-metre-long bridge proposal will “mean less pollution, fewer people using their cars and [have a] long-term benefit for Valletta, which will feel more connected to places in Sliema”.
Let us assume the government or local councils are interested in developing this public project, what should be the way forward? I would argue for a mix of public consultation and evidence-based policymaking.
In the first instance, funding possibilities would have to be sought for. Given that the government is committed to upgrade Malta’s road network over a seven-year period, would a pedestrian bridge fit within this remit? I think it should, especially when Malta is committed to develop and encourage modal shifts towards alternative forms of transport.
Alternatively, the government can vote specific capital funding or apply for EU funds, the latter also being possible through local council involvement. In the previous legislature, the government spending on capital projects was relaxed, so perhaps this time around the trend can be shifted in a sustainable manner.
Cost-benefit analyses should also be commissioned to verify investment potential of the project, given possible savings elsewhere.
What about the technicalities of the project? Environmental impact studies would have to be carried out on the marine environment, wind impact and other ecological features. This would help stakeholders discuss the issue in an informed manner. This should be so obvious but, very often, we see quite the opposite, for example within the social media, where some people excel in appointing themselves experts of everything. The technical possibilities of development projects require much more than trigger-happy Facebook chats and impulsive decisions by vote-hunters.
This is not to say that public participation is not important. Far from it. Indeed, the participation of the public and various stakeholders can help broaden the debate and create a sense of ownership and belonging to the project, should it proceed.
Local councils directly implicated in this project should have a key role in this regard. The Valletta and Sliema local councils comprise the directly-elected representatives of the respective localities and are directly involved in the day-to-day issues facing residents, businesses, tourists and others.
Let me mention just one example that readily comes to mind. The public beach under Tignè Point is becoming increasingly popular among locals and tourists alike. How will this be impacted by the development of a bridge?
Sliema and Valletta are also characterised by the increased use of bicycles and hats off to that. Given that bicycles comprise clean, light transport, would it be possible to give access to cyclists on the bridge? In the affirmative, what boundaries and limits should be established on usage?
It is by now evident that this development proposal would require a social impact assessment. Mixed sociological and other social-scientific methods should consequently analyse, monitor and manage the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of the proposal. It would give considerable importance to dimensions such as culture, perceptions, community, health, well-being and personal and property rights.
The bridge proposal could indeed serve as a case study of truly transparent, democratic and sustainable policymaking. Malta is crying for such processes.