By Sarah Muscat
Urban design is very often considered as a basic tool in addressing community issues. Principles such as compact neighbourhoods, mixed housing tenure and typologies, community design; were thought to be key elements in creating sustainable and thriving communities. Indeed, those principles were supported and implemented in various New Urbanism projects but failed. The reasons behind the failure of those ‘theoretically sound’ measures were discussed during the Urban Design Seminars session, through the various readings, presentations and case studies presented by the MAUD students. It was interesting to note that people from different social groups feel safer and experience improved mental and social well-being when surrounded by others like themselves. Another interesting fact was that imposed mixed communities may actually result in tension between the different sectors.
Further research in the subject lead to the study of ‘Shaping Neighbourhoods: Health, Sustainability, Vitality’, by Richard Guise and Hugh Barton, where it is argued that social mixing should not occur at street level, could be introduced but limited at neighbourhood level and be supported only at township level. Nevertheless, such a broad arrangement already exists naturally – a social mix is generally occurring in every city, but that does not imply that such towns have a stronger sense of community and neither that they are more sustainable. Social mixing could instead be the key in restoring neighbourhoods.
Aware that forcing a mixed socio-economic community has its negative implications, supporting its formation through policies and legislation could be more positive. Relating this notion to the local scenario in Malta, one way to reverse the current trend of ‘dying’ historical urban cores is by drawing policies and ensuring the setting up of the required infrastructure to attract young couples and families. This would not only improve the living experience in these towns, but would also contribute in reducing speculative residential development and limit gentrification.