Valletta is this year’s European City of Culture. So what will a big award do to a small city?

Valletta, with some gratuitous teenagers in the foreground. Image: Getty.

Since it began in 1985, nearly 60 cities have been awarded the title of European Capital of Culture. In 2018, two will share the title: Leeuwarden, in the Netherlands, and the Maltese capital of Valletta.

The latter adds up to a big award for a small city in a small country. On any grounds, Valletta is tiny, with a population of less than 6,000. Malta itself is only 316km2, around 1/5th the size of London.

The small size and relative accessibility of Valletta means that the impact of City of Culture aware on the country as a whole may be more significant than Liverpool gaining the title was on, say, Bournemouth. There are those who were born in Valletta but have moved out, those who have always lived there, those who work there but live elsewhere, and those who just visit. All of them seem to be feeling the ripple effect of Valletta 2018. And with 95 per cent of the total operating expenditure for exercise – approximately €46m – coming from the public sector, it’s crucial that Valletta 2018 is good value for money.

The cultural and creative industries have already been identified as one of the potential growth industries within the Maltese economy. Employment in the sector increased by 10.2 per cent in just one year, from 2014 to 2015, when the first round of evaluation was undertaken by the organising body.

And Malta’s economy, like those of many developing European countries, is in flux, as it moves from an industrial and agricultural society to a service-based one. After the economic struggles of the last few years, growth in any industry is welcome.

The Upper Barrakka Gardens. Image: Getty.

Founded in 1565 by the Order of St John as a refuge for soldiers returning from the Crusades, Valletta is a city with history. It’s has been ruled by the Turks, occupied by the French, and ruled by the British. The city was deeply scarred by World War Two, and made its name as the country’s financial centre. Today, it’s a Unesco World Heritage, too.

But the city still needs to modernise, and being named Capital of Culture has acted as a catalyst. Preparations for the title have seen the regeneration and conservation of a number of Valletta’s forgotten architectural treasures including the regeneration of Strait Street, the covered market (is-Suq l-Antik tal-Belt) and the old civil abattoir (il-Biċċerija), where the Valletta Design Cluster will be established. The Manoel Theatre has recently undergone extensive renovation, and will host numerous music, dance and theatre shows.

Of course, there are concerns about both the gentrification and monumentalisation of the city. It’s always been a busy and working city, but as more money comes in, prices rise and traditional trades die out. Some locals worry that it could become a show town for tourists, rather than a culturally thriving city.

The programme aims to improve cultural participation in both Valletta and Malta for residents and visitors alike. According to Patricia Austin, Course Leader of MA Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins, speaking at the Valletta 2018 Living Cities, Liveable Spaces: Annual Conference, this is the only way that culture can truly thrive – when the narratives come from the people who live there. “Cities cannot have stories pasted onto them.”

But some residents believe that their side of the story is not being heard. As one, who did not wish to be named, says, the programme has come with a “hefty price”: “The gentrification of this city has resulted in a part exodus of residents who have been displaced by investors. The price of property is now prohibitive to most locals.

“The feeling that most residents have,” the resident added, “is that they have been pushed into a corner out of which they have to fight for survival – if they will survive at all.”


Being Capital of Culture shouldn’t be just about attracting visitors and tourists, but having an impact on the lives of the people who live there already. In the 2016 Valletta Participation survey, 70 per cent of respondents believed that local businesses would benefit, but only 16 per cent that residents would.

James Vella Clark of Valletta Residents Revival is concerned. “All this development has been taking place without a proper masterplan for Valletta and its residents,” he says. “It’s true that many places and buildings have been upgraded – but business interests have been given a carte blanche, and are being allowed to proliferate all areas of Valletta with little consideration for residents.”

The Maltese government argues that the programme will deliver huge benefits, of course. “The very diversity offered by the programme helps in promoting the Maltese islands as a destination that is able to tailor for all sorts of tastes,” says Michael Cutajar, a communications officer at Visit Malta, the country’s tourist board. Towns such as Sliema, Rabat, Zebbug and Ta Qali will also benefit from regional events, he says. “Indirectly, communities will benefit as there will be an increased amount of visitors around the year, residing in different parts of the island, as well as renovations and regenerations of fortifications, museums and old buildings.”

And most residents remain optimistic. The Valletta Participation Survey conducted by organisers found that 86 per cent of respondents believe that Valletta is changing for the better as a result of Capital of Culture, with 89 per cent of Valletta residents seeing it as an opportunity for Malta. The programme’s chairman Jason Micallef has proposed that Malta follow the model set by the United Kingdom and Lithuania by organising its own National Capital of Culture events every three years, until 2030 when Malta will next be entitled to bid for the title.

The real test will be how well that change lasts – whether Valletta 2018 will have a legacy of boosting the economy, fuelling cultural activity and engendering a feeling of pride in the citizens.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.