In spite of the intense crowding, there is considerable open land away from the industrial and residential conurbation surrounding Valletta and the harbor area. There are more than fifty villages and towns, which range in size from 1,000 to 15,000 inhabitants.
Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, villages and towns were located on inland hills and around the fortified Grand Harbour. Houses were tightly clustered around enormous churches. This settlement pattern was dictated by the need to shelter from marauding pirates, especially Muslim corsairs, and from the malaria that flourished in the coastal marshes. Since the pacification of the central Mediterranean early in the nineteenth century, seven coastal parishes have been established.
The houses are constructed from limestone blocks, are flat-roofed, and traditionally have been built around a central courtyard. Most of the important associations, shops, and residences were clustered in and around the square in front of the church or in the streets leading to it. Thus, the pattern of residence was concentric, and it also reflected the distribution of economic and political power. Those with the highest status tended to live nearest the church and those with the lowest status farthest away, in little alleys that backed on to open fields or in rural hamlets. Residence in the village center conferred prestige, for the built-up village traditionally was associated with the culture of the town, with "civilization." The periphery of the village was associated with the countryside and agricultural work, which in Malta had low status, being linked with poverty, physically punishing work, and cultural and social deprivation. A Maltese village was thus inward-looking, focusing on the parish church and the intense social, political, economic, and ceremonial life that took place in and around the central square. This concentric pattern has changed since 1964.
Government programs to build new roads and housing, together with rising prosperity, resulted in a building boom. An influx of foreign residents keen on living near the open country and/or in traditional village houses introduced new housing standards. These have radically affected the utilization of social space.
The village periphery, once socially marginal, and the open country, once stigmatized, have become sought-after residential areas. A ring of villas and housing estates encapsulate traditional village centers, many of which have been gentrified by elite outsiders seeking characteristic, rustic houses.