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.

 
 
 
 

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