By Michalis Attalides
Planning is not a fashionable term in our times of dominant neo-liberal economic doctrine.
In Greek, the word for town planning, poleodomia, does not carry the word ‘planning’. It is more accurately translated into English as town construction/structuring.
Respected town planner, Glafkos Constantinides argues in effect that official town and country planning in Cyprus has lost its way. It is not doing its job, which is to ensure organised development of the towns and countryside, amenities, open spaces for all, protection of cultural heritage, (and natural environment ), respecting the character of the towns (and villages), easy transportation and housing development to ensure relatively inexpensive infrastructure.
Constantinides points out the official town planning system “has limited itself to a bureaucratic system of vetting applications for building on the basis of development zones, which acquire enormous interest as a system of profit and loss”.
This is a grave accusation for the town planners, for the state and for all of us. What this town planner is saying is that, instead of structured development of the towns and countryside being used to improve the lives of citizens and visitors – giving a vision for the benefit of society and future generations – it has turned the process of managing the land into a means of profiteering.
Of course, in a free-market system, land is a commodity, as are all other elements which enter the market, which are bought and sold. But its nature as a commodity is highly qualified in most countries for a number of reasons, of which the most important is that it provides the space in which all social life is organised and, therefore, as well as the aesthetic quality of our natural and built-up environment, it determines much of our relationship with cultural heritage and therefore history and collective memory.
Since this is not happening, what we have is the town and country planning chaos which we are witnessing today. It is not the case as many people think in Cyprus that this anarchy is an inevitable part of economic development. There are highly-developed, free-market economies such as Italy and Luxembourg and even most of Greece, whose towns and countryside are a delight to their inhabitants’ mind and senses.
In fact, it’s hard, if not impossible, to think of a country other than Cyprus in which there is hardly any distinction between town and countryside, and buildings are so randomly spread out that many hilltops are crowned by someone’s villa, with a road leading to it; and this scattered layout contributes to the limitation of the role of public transportation and the use of private transportation in extensive and destructive ways.
It is also difficult to think of another country where, for dozens of villages, the traditional style of the village has been destroyed, so the village is nothing but a small, random, urban agglomeration. As for the seaside, it is difficult to think of another country in which there are so few publicly-available facilities on the coast, with so much coastal space being given to hotels and private housing, intervening between the sea and the public’s view of it, and with the elimination of common areas for socialising and entertainment.
A number of factors have contributed to the extreme ‘commoditisation’ of land in Cyprus and its unpleasant effects. One is that the model of economic development has relied too heavily on construction. Another is the conversion of tourism into a separate heavy industry.
This was not inevitable. Tourism can fit into the normal life of a country and enhance it economically, socially and culturally, rather than becoming a vehicle for self-destroying and nature damaging Disneyland-type of development.
But most important of all, it seems that, in Cyprus, no overall philosophy for guiding urban and rural development has been consistently implemented. The social and economic destruction and upheaval of 1974 contributed to town-planning confusion, as did the need for rapid economic reconstruction, which created a further justification for ignoring normal town and country planning.
Is it too much to hope that some thought might go into avoiding the further trashing of our natural and built-up environment, now that we are beginning to come out of the crisis of 2011-15? Unfortunately, there are already signs that it is.
The writer is an analyst on social and diplomatic issues