Paul Zahra: It’s time to fall back in love with our CBDs

Melbourne CBD unemployment

Melbourne CBD. Source: Unsplash/Weyne Yew.

Walking through our central business districts, something just doesn’t feel right. The hustle and bustle is gone, office buildings are empty relics, ‘For Lease’ signs dominate and public transport are running ghost services with little to no passengers.

These factors are a hangover from the pandemic – but we’re now one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, business is open, we’re free to move around, and lockdowns are over. Why are we allowing our capital cities — the epicentres of our commercial, social and cultural attractions — to languish?

First, we must acknowledge COVID has fundamentally changed the way we live and work and unfortunately a ‘wait and see’ approach won’t work for our CBD recovery. It’s up to business, industry and government to follow through on bold ideas to get our CBDs back to the thriving hubs they once were.

The return of CBD office workers

Let’s be realistic: the Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 office job is over. Most employers and their staff have embraced flexible working, so employers and employees must land on a hybrid model, where people will come into the office perhaps several days a week and work from home on other days.

Based on current trends, CBD office workers mainly prefer working from home Mondays and Fridays, so they can extend their weekends by avoiding the commute. There’s no point fighting it, but employers should at least mandate their staff to come into the office on the days that work for them.

Office life needs to feel good to compete with new alternatives. Alongside work from home arrangements, it’s equally important that we get teams back face-to-face to improve mental health outcomes, collaboration and relationship building. It’s up to employers to strike the right balance with what works best for them and their people. Offices need to be redesigned to be more open and collaborative.

The recent announcements from state and territory governments removing mask requirements for most indoor settings is a practical step in getting more people back working in offices and contributing to the revitalisation of our CBDs.

As vaccination rates improve and the Omicron wave continues to subside, its pleasing to see the sensible wind-back of restrictions that’ll increase foot traffic in our capital cities and provide a much-needed boost to retail businesses – but there’s plenty more to do.

Move to a 24-hour economy

Great cities are also great play zones. And that means our nightlife and weekend options need to be sophisticated and compelling to all ages. New York City boasts of being the city that never sleeps, but most Australia’s cities are in bed by nightfall and feel more like suburban towns.

It’s time to shift our CBDs to 24-hour economies. That means flexible and extended trading hours for retailers, restaurants, bars and clubs, along with round the clock public transport. Let’s pursue more street activations, arts and cultural events – rally behind events like Vivid in Sydney but make sure we have an all-year-round calendar. How good would it be to see our CBDs buzzing with families and tourists?

More outdoor dining is a must. It would provide a massive lift to the vibe of our cities and the economic benefits would outweigh the investment.

A busy city is a safer city because there are more people around at night. And that around-the-clock bustle is a big point of difference to suburban centres, creating a special relationship with our CBDs for locals and tourists.

Child and pet-friendly cities and offices

Pet ownership is now at record levels – 69% of Australian households have a pet, with 2 million households welcoming a four-legged companion to get them through the darkest days of the lockdown.

After months hanging out together, it can be hard to leave our furry friends at home, so let’s embrace pet-friendly cities, offices, shops and restaurants.

We should allow pets on public transport, and – within reason – employers should allow pets in the office and in our favourite dining and shopping locations.

‘Bring your dog to work days’ would provide a much-needed boost to the mental health and morale of people in the office, as well as providing an added incentive for people to come into work. Who doesn’t love dogs? A favourite pre-pandemic experience of mine was being on the shoe floor of a famous department store in New York City trying on a pair of brogues with Muffy, a west highland white terrier, and his soccer Mum sitting beside me trying on the latest Louboutin stilettos. That’s what I call cohabitation!

Childcare is another area where employers could contribute significantly, providing more access to facilities for mums and dads to bring their young children to work. This would assist parents with not having to make multiple drop-offs and pick-ups and would make travel to and from the office a more seamless experience.

CBDs have been permanently disrupted

It’s tempting to see the CBD issue as just a Sydney and Melbourne problem, but it’s not.

The office occupancy rate is in single figures for Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra and it’s also languishing at 11% in Adelaide and 13% in Brisbane.

Those numbers will organically lift as ‘work from home’ directions are changed, but the demand for office space will never be at the same level. People won’t return to the office 100% of the time, five days a week.

This presents an opportunity to change up the commercial and residential mix in our CBDs. COVID has not only accelerated trends that were already occurring, it also exposed many weaknesses — in this case, the heavily weighted commercial property in our CBDs and the lack of residents.

We should enable more mix-use developments in our CBDs and convert vacant office space into residential apartments – like what is being done in London and cities in North America. We should look at streamlining the planning approvals process so this does not get bogged down in red tape and that we can truly accelerate the CBD recovery.

We can’t rely on tourists alone

The international border has finally reopened after more than 700 days, but don’t expect a massive influx of tourists to our capital cities. It will take years for international travel patterns to return anywhere near pre-pandemic levels. It’s not a silver bullet solution to the revitalisation of our CBDs.

International visitors spent around $45 billion in Australia in 2018-19 before the pandemic hit, with Chinese tourists the biggest contributors. However, China still has strict quarantine rules in place, so international travel is not a desirable option for them.

It’s time to embrace some bold ideas and inject our CBDs with new life. All options should be put on the table.

State and territory governments have started talks with business and industry. The next step is getting all parties to follow through and deliver some real solutions.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.


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peter wright
peter wright
2 months ago

Paul, some simple measures for a lively city are as follows.

  1. There is Chocolate Making Factory / Facility in Geelong giving great fun for adults and kids. Open another in Melbourne CBD. Move the fun closer. Plenty of vacant space.
  2. Half the world is mad about Golf. A practice golf range (on several levels) with hire of clubs and or coach would be great. I have used this sort of facility in Sydney. Can we reuse part of a city park? If not, then indoor virtual reality golf.
  3. We have many grafitti.artists. Could they lead a class to paint a new mural for a fee? Fun for kids and adults.
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