Policy makers and urban planners have for generations attempted and failed to diversify Australia’s economic activity and settlement away from the cities.
These same central planners also regularly touted so-called ’20-minute cities’ where people can live, work and socialise, only for commute times to grow as workers shunted into the CBD on crowded trains and roads. Policy makers also spent countless billions on expensive mass transit infrastructure in a bid to move people from suburbs to jobs in the CBD.
Then COVID arrived and delivered remote and hybrid work to the masses. Suddenly, suburban shopping strips are thriving, as are local walkways and cycle paths. The ’20-minute city’ is no no longer a myth but a reality. And there is no longer the need to waste taxpayers’ money on new infrastructure – it is already in place in the suburbs.
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The usual vested interests are pushing back hard against change, lobbying state governments to force people back to the CBD and demanding hefty taxpayer subsidies:
In an April letter to Treasurer Tim Pallas, obtained by The Age, the City of Melbourne, the Property Council, the Urban Development Institute, Master Builders Association, Trades Hall Council and CFMMEU, bemoaned the city’s “missing population”…
They warned of an oversupply of apartments and offices and a slump in rental yields, apartment sales and development applications.
The letter calls for measures: a new Postcode 3000, the celebrated 1990s program that promoted the CBD living; government purchase of existing apartments for social housing; a two-year, 100 per cent stamp duty exemption on central city property; and action to get international and domestic students back into the city.
However, suburban councilors whose localities have been invigorated by work from home are also finding their voice, calling for the new model of urban existence to be maintained:
Local mayors, cafe owners, retailers – and some senior politicians – say COVID has produced what governments Labor and conservative have promised but failed to deliver for 70 years: A city of villages.
“This is an opportunity for suburbs to retain their people, grow local jobs and invest and improve the liveability for all of Melbourne,” says Adele Hegedich, mayor of Wyndham in Melbourne’s far west. “The virus has inadvertently, finally, realised the 20-minute neighbourhood”…
[Hegedich notes] a “marked increase” in residents using local shops and open spaces. “There’s been a massive increase in pedestrian traffic and cycling”…
Steve Staikos, the mayor of Kingston in Melbourne’s south east [said] “I understand (lord mayor) Sally Capp wants to see businesses in the CBD thrive and survive. But I want the same for the businesses and residents of Kingston”…
“We’re now going through a big decentralisation,” he says. “Haven’t town planners been talking about this for a long time?”…
Local councils, meanwhile, are stepping up pressure on the state government to decentralise industry and the public service for economic and health reasons.
The idea of living in the suburbs and commuting to the city centre was always an outdated and inefficient concept – totally unnecessary in an age of internet-connected computers in ‘knowledge jobs’.
Why waste money taking workers to jobs when you can take jobs to workers?
Policy makers should embrace the workplace changes brought by COVID for the long-term. After all, why spend so much effort spruiking the benefits of ’20-minute cities’ only to abandon them when they unexpectedly arrive?