A living room made for on-street interaction.
Last Thursday, in collaboration with Margerita Pule, Parking Space Events moved across the water from Valletta to Sliema to create a ‘Kamra ta’ Barra’ (literally, an outdoor room). Traditionally the tidy and richly-decorated room Maltese households keep for the purpose of welcoming guests, we built one such ‘kamra ta’ barra’ within a parking space just outside a large building site in Howard Street Sliema.
For the few hours during our intervention, the rectangular lines on the ground marked the confines of our living room, which we invited attendees and passers-by to ‘enter’ and interact inside, while of course still being very much out on the street. We asked questions and invited discussions about what makes a good neighbourhood and about their thoughts about what is happening in the streets of Sliema at the moment.
“They dug so deep that they found sea water and cannot find a way to stop is seeping in. These apartments (pointing to the building site behind our living room) should have been habitable by last November and there are no signs of progress.”
Sliema residents spoke about the tensions of navigating their daily life around the heavy construction that is happening all over the town. “We’ve been dealing with construction for 25 years now” one resident commented. “My sister has been living on top of a building site for 10 years” another added. People spoke about the time it takes to navigate the streets to actually get out of Sliema. An elderly resident talked about wondering whether she could make it on foot from her house to Tigne Point given the immense clouds of construction dust that completely filled the air at Town Square, a €100 million luxury apartment tower project that the residents and NGOs have been campaigning against. The same resident asked philosophically “should we build upwards or outwards?”
“People complain about construction but enjoy the money that comes from it.”
“Ghada filghodu jigu l-krejnijiet u l-concrete mixers” (Tomorrow morning the cranes and the concrete mixers will take over), “I was born here but I am fed up of Sliema”. “It’s a lost cause”, “Tas-Sliema qerduha” (They have ruined Sliema), “Qed nitilfu kollox hawn” (We’re losing everything here). “We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that this is a nice environment”, “ the national bird of Malta is the crane”.
“It is the sea that saves us from going crazy.”
So what makes a good neighbourhood, we asked? “Not this crane” (referring to the big tower crane just adjacent to our living room and swaying ominously above us). “Walkways”, “Paths”, “Plants”, “Green areas”, “Safety”, “It’s not ok to put this wall here” (referring to the concrete brick wall in front of the massive building site and tower crane our living room is next to).
“The neighbours” was a popular answer. “We used to sit out on the street”. “In a town you want people to be on the street not off it. That’s the whole point of a town.” “I don’t know the neighbours and I’ve been living here for four years. There aren’t opportunities for people to meet. Most people who live here are in their 60s and 70s and they don’t feel safe being out on the streets. It’s an unbalanced neighbourhood because the young people have moved out of Sliema.” “We used to live in Sliema but our landlord sold the house” a young couple explained. “In the morning when I go to work I only see foreigners who have come here for work on the street”. “People have a different relationship to space when they are here temporarily. They might not care so much about the changes.”
As one of the living room hosts, I really enjoyed creating a space where people could chat and discuss their neighbourhood on the street. At one point I sat down with a woman who lives nearby and had an hour-long conversation that spanned construction, living in different places, religion and beliefs and the idea of thinking about future generations when taking action today. It was clear that we were extremely different in our individual perspectives, our beliefs, our ways of living. Yet on the red sofa in the middle of Howard Street we both enjoyed learning about each other’s different ways of looking at the world and somehow expanded our horizons.
Safe, welcoming spaces for people to meet on the street can be very valuable to a community. They provide the possibility for inter-generational communication and interaction between people from different backgrounds who would not usually hang out together. If designed well they can serve as peaceful, shady oases where people can be encouraged to discuss what is happening in their neighbourhoods and find ways of improving them together. Long working hours, car-dominated streetscapes, street-area take-overs by businesses and commercial concerns, lack of pedestrian and bicycle facilities and lack of shading amongst others all tend do encourage humans to be less social when outdoors. It’s time to take this into account in our urban planning to consciously design neighbourhoods that encourage and give space for people to live better.
More about Il-Kamra ta’ Barra: