Urban open spaces and climate change

After a free-for-all building spree during which the development of multiple private gardens in our towns and villages were targeted, mostly successfully, our towns and villages have been promised open spaces. This, it is being stated, will bring nature closer to people! A shining sun which will hopefully produce less hay!

The implementation of the first such proposal for an open space is nearing conclusion. An open space in the Tar-Rabbat Housing Estate in Ħamrun has been partially built-up to produce an artificial garden on concrete stilts! The area below the concrete stilts is being reserved for parking of cars! This is definitely not an open space.

The open spaces which we need should not add to the concrete jungle which has developed unabated around us over the years. The open spaces should be free from any form of construction and should be the opportunity to squeeze out cars from the urban environment, preferably relegating them to the periphery of our towns and villages. The open spaces are meant to re-introduce nature into our lives, even if in a very limited way.

Our urban areas have been left to develop on their own for quite too long. As a result, they have been guided by business-friendly or market-friendly authorities, producing the mess of an urban jungle we have to face every day. This is a mess resulting from political decisions which have ensured that profits repeatedly have a priority over people and their quality of life.

The availability of funds to introduce open spaces in our urban areas is a unique opportunity to redesign the urban environment such that it becomes people-friendly. It is also an opportunity to bring urban planning in line with the requirements of climate change mitigation policy.

Earlier this month the latest report on climate change was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). The document, almost 3000 pages long, emphasises that without profound changes to our lifestyle the Paris 2015 Climate Summit objectives will not be attained.

As islands, Malta and Gozo should be at the forefront in the international climate change debate. Climate change is already here. Extremes of temperature, long periods of drought or sudden floods are no longer a rare occurrence in the Maltese islands. We have experienced this repeatedly over the past years.

A sea-level rise will impact our coastal areas. Large stretches of our coastline are developed and used for residential purposes or else they are utilised for the maritime and tourism industries. A sea level rise, dependent on its extent, would severely impact all this activity. It is in our interest that any sea level rise resulting from climate change would be minimal, if at all. This can only happen if the climate mitigation targets agreed to at the Paris Summit are adhered to the soonest.

One of the ideas doing the rounds in the climate change debate is to rethink our urban design strategy as one of the basic tools with which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as “the 15-minute city” by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris Mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away on foot or by bike! Consequently, our dependency on the car would be done away with, as a result even claiming back our streets. The open spaces initiative could fit in perfectly within the parameters of the “15-minute city”.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyle within this framework?

The Covid-19 pandemic has given most of us a taste of working from home. If this could become a permanent feature of our urban lifestyle, some of us would not need not travel to work every day. This would address and potentially reduce our addiction to the car. Over a period of time this would impact our carbon emissions.

Our contribution to climate change mitigation as a result of which we can accelerate our path to carbon neutrality could be achieved without impacting our mobility. Through a judicious use of public transport, and the facilitation of other sustainable mobility options our mobility can in fact be substantially improved as a result.

Come October all public transport will be free of charge. Hopefully it will also be reliable and efficient. If adequately planned this could be a turning point in climate change mitigation measures as over a period of time it can lead to a reduction of cars from our roads. Initially such a reduction would necessarily be of a temporary nature. Eventually we can move towards a permanent change.

Within this context open spaces adequately planned have a pivotal role. They improve our quality of life by bringing it closer to nature in our 15-minute cities.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 24 April 2022

Climate Change and the 15-minute city

The latest report on climate change was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this month. The full document is almost 3,000 pages long!

The current international debate on climate change is focusing on whether the objectives of the 2015 Paris Climate Summit are achievable. It is clear to all that, without profound and imminent changes in our lifestyles, these objectives will not be achieved.

The clear objective agreed to in Paris is to reduce carbon emissions in order to achieve carbon neutrality soonest. This would ensure that the global mean temperature does not surpass the pre-industrial temperature by more than 1.5ºC. This would in turn tame the climate over time.

As an island, Malta should be at the forefront in the international climate change debate. We will be severely impacted like all other countries. In fact, we are already at the receiving end of the impact of extreme weather conditions at an increased frequency. Long periods of drought are more frequent. Likewise, we have experienced more than a fair share of floods, which have caused considerable damage all over the islands.

As islands, sea-level rise will add to our problems in Malta and Gozo in a manner which is dependent on the rate at which this will take place. A substantial part of our essential infrastructure lies along our coast. This will potentially be severely impacted as a result of a sea-level rise. Just think about the impacts on the tourism infrastructure, for example.

One of the ideas doing the rounds in the climate change debate is to rethink the way we plan our cities as one way in which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as ‘the 15-minute city’ by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away.

Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

COVID-19 has given most of us a taste of remote working. In a limited way, this could become a permanent feature of our urban lifestyles. Some of us need not travel to work every day. With proper planning, remote working could reduce a substantial number of cars from our roads permanently and, consequently, the associated carbon emissions.

In the Maltese islands, distance should not be an issue: almost everywhere is within easy reach. Our National Transport Master Plan, in fact, advises us that 50 per cent of trips carried out by our private vehicles are for short distances, having a duration of less than 15 minutes. Achieving 15-minute cities should not be that difficult if we put our heads together to address it.

Our contribution to climate change mitigation, as a result of which we can accelerate our path to carbon neutrality, could be achieved through a substantial reduction of cars from our roads. We can achieve this without impacting our mobility. Through a judicious use of public transport and the facilitation of other sustainable mobility options, our mobility can be substantially improved as a result.

Come October, all public transport will be free. Hopefully, it will also be reliable and efficient. If adequately planned, this could be a turning point in climate change mitigation measures as, over a period of time, it can lead to a reduction of cars from our roads. Initially, such a reduction would necessarily be of a temporary nature. Eventually, we can move towards a permanent change.

Real change takes time to achieve.

Giving shape and form to 15-minute cities could be the next realistic challenge in our climate mitigation road map. All that is required is the political will.

published in The Times of Malta: 21 April 2022