The working future of Australian cities
In the face of COVID-19, the way we work and convened changed with what felt like the drop of a pin. More than six months later the long tail of the pandemic raises questions about the potential future of our cities and if we will need to adapt them to be used in a different way.
How will city centres now be utilised with less office space being required and how will cities be constructed differently without people potentially travelling to city centres as frequently? It may be too early to predict permanent shifts but there are a few telling signs.
Reduction in migration to cities
While lockdowns might be temporary there will be mid to long-term effects on tourism, foreign education and the job market, all reducing migration to cities. In Sydney and Melbourne, latest payroll data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the impact of the job market on cities and a correlation to a reduction in people travelling centrally for work. In Victoria, 7.8 per cent of payroll jobs have gone since mid-March but in central Melbourne the rate is at a national high of 10.3 per cent. In NSW since mid-March 4.4 per cent of all payroll jobs have disappeared. But in central Sydney about 8.5 per cent have gone.
New ways of working
For those who have remained employed, the new way of working has left many people seeking to escape living close to the city and looking out towards regional areas and less COVID-19 affected states. Being able to afford to live in larger spaces for less than what is being paid for in the city is reported to be the largest driver, along with health and safety still being a significant concern.
Particularly in Victoria, Real Estate agents have been fielding more enquiries from Melburnians than ever. Furniture removalist website Muval says 20,000 Victorians looked to relocate after Stage 4 lockdown measures were announced – with most seeking to move to Queensland. Whether this is a long-term change will depend on the labour market and how people proceed to participate in renting, buying and selling property, as well how wary people remain about high-density city areas. If remote work becomes normalised, regional markets could see a benefit from that.
Governments, architects, real estate agents and city managers are now being tasked with finding new ways to attract growth to city centres, given the impact of the pandemic and the investment made to these spaces. They predict less floorspace will be required for offices that do need to continue operating, as people take up offers of flexibly working from home. According to Mike Harris, an academic in urban architecture the University of New South Wales, these spaces may need to be redesigned to consider new working and health conscious habits but perhaps the truth lies in the view of Gabriel Metcalf, Chief Executive for the Committee for Sydney. “Office buildings may need to be retrofitted to serve more of a gathering and collaborating purpose instead of simply providing workspace,” he said.
There have been talks of office buildings being converted to residential living spaces over the long-term as one example for the next step if there isn’t a significant revival. Tony McGough, a senior property lecturer at RMIT says it will take about two years for the physical landscape of a CBD to change, for construction of office buildings to halt from lack of demand and change the makeup of a city. If the shift does go this way it will also be a horrible return on investment for all the infrastructure projects that are being hailed to help the revival of the economy.
The Grattan Institute’s transport and cities program director, Marion Terrill, said the sharp reduction in population growth would have a flow-on effect, including to major construction projects in both cities. ‘‘We’ve got a large number of major projects approved on the expectation of a lot of people, who are simply not going to be there,’’ she said.
Governments and planners have a big job on their hands to take into consideration how people want to live and work as we slowly emerge into the new COVID-19 norm.