Environmental Capacity of a Small Island State: Planning for Sustainable Development in Malta

Article excerpt

The concept of environmental capacity seems intuitively attractive for implementing sustainability in small island states, and this paper examines its usefulness in the island state of Malta. The concept suggests that there may be limits or thresholds to the total amount of development that an area can contain without losing its critical environmental features or capital. The research uncovers serious tensions in the theory and practice of environmental capacity assessment, surrounding the determination of critical environmental capital, and the reconciliation of scale, expertise and environmental justice. It concludes that for the concept and its associated planning tool to have transformative potential in Malta, it will need to throw off reformist versions that are technocratic, expert based and dominated by metaphors of instrumentality, and that the political context in which it is implemented will need to support open, informed debate and a genuine search for alternative models of environmental governance.

If sustainability means anything, it is the setting of limits on activity, development and change. But whose limits, and how to define them? (Minter and Bowers, 1995, 1)

Sustainable development has become a central goal for environmental planning1 across the world and island sustainability has been recognised as a policy area offering particular challenges (UN, 1994; 2000; WSSD, 2002). One policy tool that has been developed in the UK to implement sustainability in land use planning is environmental capacity assessment (WSSC, 1996; Arup/BDP, 1995). It has been claimed that such assessment, with its focus on setting environmental and social thresholds for development and change based on the identification of critical environments, has the potential to facilitate integration of sustainable development concerns into environmental planning systems (EA, 2000; Counsell, 1999; Murdoch, 2000; Jacobs, 1997b; DETR, 1997; RCEP, 2002; Owens, 1994; Owens and Cowell, 2002; CPRE, 1993).

It would seem, at least in theory, that the concept of environmental capacity would be particularly useful to island states wishing to integrate sustainability into their planning systems, because the thresholds it emphasises are often more obvious in such cases. Small islands are also temptingly (albeit somewhat deceptively) akin to 'closed-systems' laboratories, in which the testing of a concept such as environmental capacity could be particularly revealing. In this paper, the usefulness of environmental capacity assessment in this context has been investigated by means of a case study in the island state of Malta. The research indicates that the practice of capacity assessment raises a nexus of complex social and political issues that reflect the contested nature of implementing sustainable development in other contexts. This paper begins by providing a brief outline of Malta and the methodology used in the research; it then outlines the five central tensions associated with the concept and practice of environmental capacity before moving on to review the principal findings of the research for each. The paper then discusses the research findings related to Malta's cultural politics, before concluding with a response to the central question posited in this study by providing some practical policy recommendations for Malta and proposals for further research.

Examining environmental capacities


The Maltese Archipelago is located roughly in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, 93 kilometres south of Italy and 230 kilometres north of Libya, on a submarine ridge that divides the Sea into its two main hydrographic basins (Fig. 1). Malta, the largest and most heavily populated island, is 27 kilometres long by 14 kilometres wide, shaped like a fish, along the back of which are found the remarkable harbours that have contributed to Malta's military and commercial history and given rise to its urban core.

The islands, which are home to some 380,000 people, are already approximately 25 per cent urbanised (MHAE, 2002), while demand for new housing, tourism and commercial development is steadily increasing. …