Cultural Regeneration through Urban Spaces and Places

The effects of a European Capital of Culture are felt through both the cultural activities that take place and through the interactions people have with each other as well as the space around them in their everyday lives.

The Valletta 2018 Foundation has been working tirelessly on several projects preparing Valletta for its title as European Capital of Culture in Malta in 2018. More so, it is researching how these projects are changing the lives of people.

These interactions between communities and their surrounding space are key issues being investigated by the Valletta 2018 Evaluation & Monitoring research process. This is a five-year research study examining the impacts of the European Capital of Culture on Malta’s society and economy.

Dr Antoine Zammit, with the Valletta 2018 Foundation, has been studying the relationship between community inclusion and space in cultural infrastructural projects. His research focuses on four specific infrastructural projects taking place in Valletta as part of the European Capital of Culture: The Valletta Design Cluster (il-Biċċerija) and its surrounding neighbourhood; Strait Street; the relocation of MUŻA – Mużew Nazzjonali tal-Arti (Malta’s National Museum of Fine Arts) – to Auberge d’Italie and Pjazza de Valette; and the area surrounding the Valletta Covered Market (is-Suq tal-Belt).

The four projects are in different stages of their implementation, and have been dispersed throughout Valletta in a way that allows them to collide with many of the different districts of the capital. While none lack cultural significance, each project has displayed different strengths in implementation. The Valletta Market and Strait Street Projects have a particularly strong commercial value, while the Valletta Design Cluster is aimed at creative design and encouraging entreprenuership. MUŻA, more overtly than any of the other three projects, is an attempt at traditional forms of cultural engagement and regeneration through the development of a national, community-driven musuem of art. Zammit, together with two M.Arch. (Architecture and Urban Design) students—Daniel Attard and Christopher Azzopardi—carried out extensive studies to gain a deeper understanding of the sites.

“Quality urban design has increasingly become about creating these habitable places. It is ultimately all about the quality of life of residents.”

Attard developed a matrix in order to score the different types of interactions within each site. Split into categories such as ‘aural’, ‘user categories’ and ‘actual use of space,’ the sections help identify emerging patterns and traits from the implementations of the projects. The Biċċerija and Strait Street all score high in the ‘aural’ category, meaning various elements that contributed to noise, or the lack of it, were observed. MUŻA and the Covered Market both qualified for the ‘user categories’ section, meaning that a relatively diverse demographic was observed making use of the place. The Valletta Design Cluster was noted for having a higher level of human interaction take place daily (balcony conversations, loud conversations in general, and so on). Finally, all four sites qualified for the category of ‘actual use of space,’ meaning that people actively show awareness of the space by taking photos, complaining due to lack of public conveniences, construction work, and shops setting up or closing down, among other things.

On the other hand, Azzopardi focused on the spatial quality of the sites by looking at their accessibility and permeability, perception and comfort, and the vitality of the four sites. Of the four, Strait Street, more specifically the intersection with Old Theatre Street, scored highest, followed by MUŻA and the Valletta  Market. The Valletta Design Cluster obtained the lowest score, suggesting that the site in its current state is poorly perceived and somewhat inaccessible. Matching Azzopardi’s findings with statistical data, obtained at a neighbourhood level through the NSO’s evaluation of the available 2011 Census Data, Zammit has determined some relationship (but not statistically significant), between the buildings’ current state of repair and the community’s achievements in literacy, education, and employment.

Museum of the People

Naqsam il-MUŻA is a branch project inspired by MUŻA. Currently in progress, participants in the Naqsam il-MUŻA project were selected from different communities around Malta and taken to see the art collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts. They will then exhibit their choice of artwork from the museum in their localities. It brings the museum to the people, rather than the other way round.

The diversity of the four sites were key to Zammit’s studies. He studied the effect their differing cultural infrastructure had on the cultural regeneration of Valletta. ‘Cultural infrastructure entails those interventions, which generally have some kind of physical implication, in an urban space which tends to enhance and broaden people’s cultural appreciation,’ explains Dr Zammit, ‘but I see it as requiring an added value. In my opinion, art for art’s sake in these cases doesn’t mean anything. Which is why the question which I try to answer in my research is, “what will that infrastructure give back to the community at the end of it all?”’ Other research, similar to Zammit’s, holds that more than just creating spaces, cultural regenerative projects should aim to create places which result from quality urban design. ‘Over the past two years, I started to realise that the real difference is ‘between places that are alive, versus habitable places,’ comments Zammit, who thinks that, ‘quality urban design has increasingly become about creating these habitable places. It is ultimately all about the quality of life of residents.’ This issue of liveability is key to being a European Capital of Culture. Its goals are to create high-quality cultural and artistic activities while improving the quality of life of communities through culture. Zammit’s study highlights many potential issues such as an increase in noise pollution, gentrification resulting from a rise in property values and rental prices, and other potential impacts on Valletta residents. The Valletta 2018 Foundation is discussing these issues in its upcoming conference Cities as Community Spaces in November 2016, which will bring together a number of international speakers to explore how different communities make use of public spaces for creativity, contestation, and interaction. 

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Maltese Cultural Participation: What do the people want?

Malta is rich in culture—that is a fact beyond contention – and whose vast range of cultural activities attract different people with varied interests. But how does this fit in the context of Valletta being the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) in 2018?

Before delving into the many questions that surround this, one needs to perhaps address what we understand by the term ‘culture’ – are we talking about traditions or art? Cultural participation in Malta is often believed to be low, and a Eurobarometer survey carried out in 2013 confirmed that the Maltese are among the least active participants in culture in Europe. However, culture is not something that can be given a clear-cut definition. The term can refer to anything from art exhibitions to the more popular, traditional festi (feasts). Such feasts are not taken into consideration by many surveys like the Eurobarometer.

The Valletta 2018 Foundation’s research department has therefore embarked on a five-year research process (2015–2019) whereby it aims to understand the factors that affect cultural participation to create a body of research that will shed light on participation in the sector. The research will help artists, cultural practitioners, and policy makers.

Last year, the Valletta 2018 Foundation conducted the first in a series of surveys that are looking  into cultural participation in Valletta. The survey, carried out in collaboration with the National Statistics Office, asked 1,138 respondents about their preferred cultural activity. The top three cultural activities the Maltese public enjoyed were citywide activities such as Notte Bianca, followed by Carnival, and visits to museums and historical sites.

The events took place in Valletta and registered more active participation from residents than from those living outside the city’s walls. Valletta residents are more likely to have attended artistic exhibitions and events when compared to non-Valletta residents (18% vs 12%). People from the island’s Northern Harbour region (the area around Marsamxett Harbour and neighbouring areas) placed second after Valletta residents in their likelihood to have attended some form of cultural event in the capital. On average, 35% of residents from the Northern Harbour region    have attended some form of cultural activity in Valletta, compared to an average of 15% from other regions. These statistics give the impression that physical proximity plays an important role in the degree of cultural participation. People commented on the pleasant atmosphere and the sense of unity events created while others said that such events make for a different kind of family outing.

The Maltese people also seem to enjoy the performing arts. Other popular activities include going to the cinema or attending film screenings, artistic exhibitions and events, live music and live theatre events. These are followed by the Valletta parish feasts—more traditional activities tied to the city itself. Dance is not as appreciated as other performing arts disciplines, with a staggering 94% of respondents claiming they had never attended a dance performance. The only other activities less well-attended are passion plays in Easter time (95% never attended) and the Regatta (96% never attended).

THINK_Issue16_INSIDE-66The general consensus of the respondents was that Valletta is a cultural city which is improving in terms of its cultural offerings as well as its image. However, attendance for Valletta’s cultural events is still relatively low with people showing a lack of interest in cultural activities (38% of respondents claimed that they do not attend cultural events as they are simply “not interested”). This statistic is a concern in the light of the fact that Valletta will be capital of culture in just two years. It is the role of the Foundation to use these findings to find new opportunities that can boost cultural participation and encourage engagement with cultural activities. This data can also help other entities and practitioners in the sector.

The Foundation has developed a varied cultural programme, which is open, engaging, and accessible. To complement the aforementioned Valletta Participation Survey, the Foundation has also carried out an in-depth, qualitative analysis of its cultural programme. This research shows that the Valletta 2018 Cultural Programme not only includes projects related to the visual arts and feasts in Valletta, but also other community projects, aiming to eliminate barriers that prevent cultural participation and that allow for the co-creation of cultural activities and audience development. The study shows how the Foundation is taking a contemporary approach in developing cultural projects, by looking at a long-term development process and aiming for a long-lasting legacy. This research shows how that, to date, the Valletta 2018 Cultural Programme has focused on community and interdisciplinary projects, as well as projects involving music and film.

Both the Valletta Participation Survey and the qualitative analysis of the Valletta 2018 Cultural Programme will continue to be carried out in the coming years. Such studies explore the relationship between the cultural programme and participation countrywide in order for changes in the level of cultural participation in the Maltese Islands can be compared.

The Valletta 2018 Evaluation and Monitoring research process is a five-year project (2015–2019) that is looking into the impacts of Valletta 2018 on the country. The Valletta Participation Survey is a study carried out in collaboration with the NSO that takes place on a biannual basis. The qualitative study, titled ‘A Comprehensive Analysis of the Valletta 2018 Cultural Programme’ is being carried out by Daniela Blagojevic Vella.