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  1. Newstatesman Gibraltar
27 August 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:50pm

Gibraltar’s Urban Renewal Challenge

Historic cities all over the world often struggle to maintain the balance between conservation and preservation and renewal and regeneration.

By Claire Montado

Historic cities all over the world often struggle to maintain the balance between conservation and preservation and renewal and regeneration. The spirit of these cities are heavily entwined in the bricks and mortar, the physical fabric of the old quarters, the town centres of these places which speak volumes about the people and communities that built them and live in them.

Gibraltar is no different other than in the fact that the conservation issues faced all over the world can often be so much more acute and decisions taken more critical due to the land available for development. Gibraltar’s surface area covers 8.4km² [1] and the old town, within the city walls makes up for about 4km² of that- approximately 50%. Therefore pressure on this resource to keep up with change in terms of improved living standards, flat sizes and living space expectations, infrastructure requirements and upgrading, the need for leisure and commercial spaces, parking and access requirements, can all make the rejuvenation of these historic spaces unattractive.

In the campaign for the renewal and beautification of Gibraltar’s old town, the phrase ‘Urban Renewal’ is often used. This is sometimes mistakenly seen as limited to decorating or repairing old buildings but, whilst essential maintenance cannot be ignored, it actually goes a lot deeper than this. The drive for Urban Renewal is about people – it is about creating and fostering environments for communities in areas where they want to live, work, study and play- spaces that people are proud to identify with. Gibraltar has seen a distinct lack of investment in areas of its historic city over the years. The main tourist thoroughfares, the Main Street and ancillary side streets, public squares and large stretches of the defensive city walls have all been subject to comprehensive refurbishment and upgrading programmes since the 1990s, many have been completed with some ongoing and others in the pipeline. In recent years, attention has turned to the Upper Town, a concentration of vernacular buildings, alleyways, steps and streets which wind their way up the natural slopes of the Rock. Described by many as having a striking resemblance to Italian coastal towns such as Genoa and others along the Italian Riviera, Gibraltar’s old town exudes a character of its own, asking for investment and rejuvenation to help it shine once again.

Over the last decade or so, there have been a number of major Government-led infrastructural projects which are acting as catalysts for change and attracting investment into the old town. The conversion of the old civil hospital, which relocated to a new facility in 2005, into a First and Middle School ready to open its doors in September 2015 is a prime example of this. Adjacent to this site, a large complex of early 20th Century Police Officer Barracks are being converted into large family apartments with onsite underground parking and a large plaza and cafe which will undoubtedly become a popular space for parents on the school run.

The investment by Government in infrastructure and access improvements is luring Gibraltarians back into the old town. The beautification of Castle Street, and renewal of infrastructure services down this artery, coupled with the provision of strategic multi storey car parks and the installation of a large open air escalator has made access to the narrow, though picturesque, lanes of the area easier. A private scheme to convert 6 adjacent dilapidated buildings into 21 modern flats was sold out off-plan within 48 hours of their launch.  Other projects in progress in the area are the conversion of a large town house into a boutique hotel and another into a short-stay hotel, as well as a growing number of conversions of long empty properties that had been subdivided over the years into flats, and are now being consolidated into beautiful spacious family homes.

Themomentum is gathering for change in Gibraltar’s old town, but with that there also comes the need to be alert to unsuitable and unsustainable projects such as the recent loss of an historic bakery building just off the Main Street in favour of the construction of a modern 8 storey hotel. It is this type of project that does not seek to maintain the relationship between Gibraltar’s past and its future that we must work to avoid. People want to hold onto real places from their history and collective memories that contribute to their identities. Heritage is an intrinsic part of that. In a place as unique and fiercely proud as Gibraltar, we cannot afford to miss the opportunity.

Claire Montado is the Chief Executive of The Gibraltar Heritage Trust, a non-profit statutory body working to protect, conserve and promote Gibraltar’s heritage.

[1] Source: HM Government of Gibraltar. “Gibraltar Geoportal.” (accessed: 20/08/2015)

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