How the EIB’s JASPERS program helped Malta’s smart city rejuvenation strategy really take off

It all began with a falcon.

As decreed in 1530, one falcon per year was the symbolic payment that the Knights of Malta had to pay the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, in exchange for a perpetual lease on Malta.

Fast forward half a millennia, and getting even a small piece of land in the European Union’s most densely populated country will cost you close to a Maltese falcon of the Humphrey Bogart variety (the falcon statue covered in jewels that he helped look for in the legendary 1941 film and which was based on the same annual payment to the emperor).

That’s why it is curious that in the heart of the bustling capital, Valletta, a central, seaside area called Marsamxett is full of derelict buildings. Almost every third building is vacant and/or in disrepair.

But this is about to change—and it’s also where the Knight’s and their falcons come back into the story. After the cunning falcon deal, the knights built a priory in the Marsamxett area called House of Catalunya. Today this is where Denise Fiorentino goes to work every morning at the Ministry of European Affairs and Equality of Malta.  

The legacy of WWII

“In Malta, usually government invests first, then the private sector follows,” says Fiorentino, director general of the ministry’s strategy and implementation division. “Our goal is to regenerate the area, improve the quality of life of residents, attract businesses, and tap into the potential of the cultural heritage in the area.”

Fiorentino’s team is developing an integrated sustainable urban development strategy that will be able to invest EUR 24 million, co-funded by the European Commission’s European Regional Development Fund. Given that the needs are far greater, Malta turned to JASPERS, the technical assistance partnership between the European Investment Bank and the Commission. The aim: to assess the initiative with a view to ensure that the strategy would most effectively address the needs of the area.

The strategy is built on a holistic view of how improvements in social housing, business opportunities and jobs, transport and preserving cultural heritage would help rejuvenate the area. That’s the essence of the EIB’s Smart City concept—a Smart City isn’t just a collection of fancy high-tech gear; it’s an integrated plan based on inputs from various stakeholders and make use of appropriate technological solutions to exploit the city’s assets to maximum advantage in order to improve life for citizens, as called for by the EU Urban Agenda.

In the beginning of the 1940s, just as “The Maltese Falcon” was racking up Academy Award nominations, Malta suffered some of the most sustained bombing of World War II, destroying thousands of buildings. After the war, new affordable housing was made available to citizens for negligible rents in the Marsamxett area.

An Excel-sheet for more than just euros

While these homes have stayed in the hands of families with little means and less incentive to make improvements, the dwellings have become inappropriate for the older population living there, with no elevators in the buildings and safety a concern, says Jeroen Bakker, a specialist from JASPERS - Smart Development division.

Bakker and colleagues helped develop a multi-criteria analysis tool, based on the policy goals outlined in the strategy. “How do you decide between a project in social housing that costs EUR 1 million and a public transport initiative costing EUR 5 million? To put it simply, the multi-criteria analysis would factor in the benefits of changing windowpanes on a house and the benefits of fitting 3 blocks of social housing with elevators,” Bakker explains.

For Bakker and Fiorentino, the approach is rooted in an understanding of integrated city planning: that one initiative may have various social, economic and environmental implications. Renewing a cultural heritage site into working space for design workers will create jobs for younger people, and also a demand for better transport connections and apartments in the area. This requires a real birds-eye view of how a city lives and breathes, and the connections between lighting, shops, homes and workplaces.

JASPERS had to work closely with Malta’s authorities to help figure this out. And unlike the emperor, JASPERS doesn’t require payment—not even in falcons. JASPERS is free of charge for local authorities and promoters, in case they are benefiting from EU structural funds.