Is this frenzied construction really improving our health and well-being?
by Martin Galea De Giovanni
Maltese citizens are facing health and social challenges that merit urgent attention – obesity, mental health problems, respiratory diseases such as asthma, social exclusion, air, light and noise pollution – the list goes on and on. These issues particularly affect socio-economically disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and put pressure on already stretched health budgets.
According to a growing body of evidence, nature is an under-recognised healer. Access to nature helps to reduce depression, stress, and obesity, and to boost overall well-being, physical activity, and children’s development. For example, studies show how doctors prescribe fewer anti-depressants in urban areas that contain more trees. Middle-aged men in deprived urban areas have a 16 per cent lower risk of dying when they live close to nature. Pregnant women with good access to nature areas record lower blood pressure and give birth to larger babies.
Nature in our everyday environment is beneficial to general well-being. It creates a sense of space and community. Green areas are an important factor for individuals and communities establishing a ‘sense of place’ and ‘ownership’ of the landscape. Access to nature and activities in nature improve self-reported well-being in disadvantaged groups and can contribute to improved mental health. More and more initiatives are using nature for green exercise and therapeutic purposes. These include some of Friends of the Earth Malta’s work such as our Nature Therapy project being done in conjunction with the Richmond Foundation at Villa Chelsea.
Access to nature in daily life also contributes to better health in old age. Reducing physical and socio-economic barriers and improving infrastructure and services are important to give elderly and physically disabled people access to nature.
And yet against all this evidence, our green spaces and trees are literally being bulldozed to make way to yet more investment apartments and even more roads. Whilst some are benefitting handsomely from this situation, the majority are not – even though some might hope that eventually they will reap the benefits of some trickle down nonsense.
Sorry to break your spell, but if you sow concrete don’t expect to reap fruits and flowers. Is this frenzied construction really improving our health and well-being? Will an extra petrol station a few hundreds of metres down the road from the next one really add any value to your quality of life? Sadly this so called ‘development’ is only proving that the effects of lack of nature is simply destroying our society.
Yes it is now starting to feel as though this country does not belong to us all any more – and before any Patriot pats themselves on the shoulder – it now belongs to the likes of Sadeen, Sajwani and Bey … sprinkled with a bit of Vassallo, Chetcuti, Polidano and Gasan to give it a bit of a local flavour.
The evidence calls for increased efforts to provide accessible and well-maintained natural areas. This is the responsibility of each and every single one of us, all the way to the government, which in its capacity can contribute by recognising that access to nature is a fundamental human right.
Our government, rather than rolling the red carpet to whoever throws money into investments like the-not-so-smart “Smart City” and the “American” not so “University” of Malta, should instead accelerate the integration of nature and social concerns across policy areas, and commit to access to nature rights. The enactment of the Public Domain Act was one positive step forward in this direction but clearly more is needed.
Building regulations should not be left to the likes of a very particular wolf who is now rather busy raiding the hen house. The government should enact laws which would have minimum standards for nature proximity. Similarly, health policies should take into account the preventative benefits of nature. It is high time that no further development occurs in ODZs. This generation has the obligation to protect these sites, respecting our past, acknowledging the present needs and passing on this heritage to future generations.
Our country needs a better vision than that of its soulless Dubai-ification which is currently in full swing – one that focuses on delivering a fair, healthy, and environmentally-sustainable Malta for all. The purpose should be social well-being in the provision of quality, affordable services, and a reinforced social fabric which binds us together, and a healthy natural environment that sustains life, protects our precious water and air, and tackles the looming effects of climate change.
Local communities, NGOs and the government should see the opportunities of turning networks of protected areas into accessible health hubs that offer benefits to all citizens. This is an invitation for dialogue and cooperation in order to keep these islands liveable for generations to come.
Finally this is a call for action – clicking the “like button” on a Facebook post is not going to stop new concrete monsters like the latest ones in Pembroke and Kalanka. Join your local community, like the fine team of activists in Pembroke, support your favourite NGO with your time, expertise and donations, contact your district MPs and speak to them about your concerns and well-being. Ultimately this is about all of us – of whichever political hue, social standing and other perceived divides – not wanting to wake up one day and feel like this is no longer the place we deserve to live in.
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