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The Times of Malta interviews Mayor Paul Borg Olivier

Valletta has come to mean more than the capital city as, over the past years, it has become more and more of a culture capital. Mayor Paul Borg Olivier tells Claudia Calleja how the physical restoration of the city is working to complement its human regeneration that includes a cultural renaissance and the tackling of recently-identified social problems.

During the summer months, Valletta has been bustling with cultural activity that has drawn thousands of Maltese to appreciate the capital from both the inside and the outside.

Even as works were carried out on the pedestrianisation of the streets and restoration of buildings, the city was brought to life with a string of events - ranging from recitals, to plays to live bands and street performances - and many were those who questioned why the capital went into hibernation once summer was over.

Sitting at a desk at the Valletta local council, Dr Borg Olivier begged to differ and went on to illustrate how activity in Valletta went on throughout the year.

The way he sees it, a vacuum has been filled.

Traditionally, he said, Valletta was the stage for cultural events in winter, between October and May, through the traditional performing theatres and exhibition spaces. Up to a few years ago the only summer activity in Valletta was the Jazz Festival and some other peripheral activities. Then, six years ago, the wine festival was introduced, bringing people to the Upper Barrakka Gardens.

"So I would say that, over the last six years, with a build-up this year thanks to the Malta Arts Festival, we have filled the gaps between June and October. We've managed to fill a vacuum and create a city for all seasons. All this was possible thanks to synergy with the Culture Ministry," he said.

Yet, one might argue that there is an overkill of activities in summer.

While agreeing that in summer there were a lot of back-to-back events that injected life into the streets that did not mean Valletta was dead in winter.

The mayor went on to prove his point, listing a series of activities that took place between October last year and April this year. These included the successful Notte Bianca and Notte Magica, the Christmas season events, the feast of St Paul, the carnival festivities, the Good Friday and Easter processions and the fireworks festival, to mention a few.

He went on to add that, unlike other localities, Valletta did not belong to its local council or the residents. Being the capital, it belonged to everyone and that was why the government and other organisations - such as the Valletta Creative Forum and Valletta Alive Foundation - had taken initiatives to support events in Valletta.

Dr Borg Olivier noted that there has been an ongoing effort to make people more sensitive about the capital.

"We've managed to create more sensitivity between people from the cultural field to choose Valletta as the venue and this was illustrated by the fact that MADC moved their annual Shakespeare event to Valletta. There is no better cultural stage than Valletta because it offers all the amenities; there are 2,500 restaurant, café and wine bar covers against a cultural backdrop.

"There is also sensitivity on the part of performers, organisers and residents who have to learn how to live with so many events going on," he said.

All this worked to attract the locals to come back and appreciate their own capital as an alternative form of entertainment that complements other existing forms of entertainment and combines entertainment, dining, leisure and culture. And, to Dr Borg Olivier, the essence of culture is reflected in the people's way of life.

"I would describe Valletta being like a bottle of champagne. It's nice from the outside, it's exciting when it pops - and I think it's just popped in a new form of renaissance - and it's good on the taste," Dr Borg Olivier said.

The mayor stressed the human element of culture: "Culture is a human regeneration but it also comes from the physical regeneration that is going on," he said. And at the moment there is a lot of "physical regeneration" in progress.

This involves the restoration of the three gardens and the rehabilitation of historical buildings such as the Archaeology Museum, the National Library, the Monte Di Pietà in Merchants Street, the Public Registry and the continuous restoration inside St John's Co-Cathedral.

Then there was the pedestrianisation process, which, he noted, was a commitment towards injecting more life into Valletta.

The fact that the pedestrian area - which in the past was limited to Republic Street and Zachary Street - has been extended to a block, to include streets from Old Bakery to St Paul's Street, will enhance the possibility of getting activity, such as table and chairs, on the street.

"I long for that time when some shops in Republic Street will pull down their shutters at 7 p.m. and, at that time, other shops will be putting up their shutters after having changed their nature of use from shop to restaurant," the mayor said, adding that, all along, the resident must be respected.

He added that the pedestrianisation project is being carried out smoothly and efficiently.

But why in summer, in the prime tourist season?

Dr Borg Olivier noted that, in terms of tourism , Valletta was active throughout the year. Although it was true that the cruise liner industry peaked in summer, the truth is that the tourists' stay in Valletta during a typical summer day was shorter than a day in winter. Apart from that, he said, the dry summer climate allowed for more efficient work.

And with pedestrianisation comes the introduction of the controlled vehicle access (CVA) system, which, he said, has been working well at face value. However, it did need fine tuning that included better enforcement, the changing of certain traffic routes and the possible alterations to the distribution of residential spaces.

And, going back to human regeneration, the mayor had another point he longed to make.

He recognised that Valletta could have two contrasting sides to it and was very aware that the city came with social problems. "We are addressing it very seriously and are extremely sensitive to the social texture of Valletta," he said.

Clearly concerned about this reality he said that about a year ago the Valletta Community Network was set up to bring together all the local stakeholders, NGOs and parishes to identify such issues within the local community.

A community worker working on this project had identified issues dealing with the elderly, drugs and unemployment and would assist by channelling the problems to the right place.

Together with the Social Affairs Ministry, a building had been identified to become the Valletta Community Centre by the end of the year. This will serve as a base to house representatives from the Employment and Training Corporation, the Social Welfare Department, a social and community worker and a local council representative.

"The idea is to have a centre whereby you have the national agencies coming down at a local level, working with the Valletta local council as the majority stakeholder as, through the Valletta Community Network, we know the people and their concerns," Dr Borg Olivier explained.

This joint effort is aimed to improve the quality of life in all parts of Valletta. After all, as the mayor said, culture was reflected in the quality of life and this included all residents.

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