The coronavirus pandemic is having a profound effect on the Australian way of life and especially in our cities.
It is accelerating the trend towards digitisation in both the home and in the workplace, it is changing how we work, and it is placing the home much closer to the centre of everyday life. The big question is the extent to which these and other trends will remain intact years after the pandemic has receded.
Australia’s biggest cities evolved over the course of a century in a format that, from an aerial perspective, made them look a bit like a fried egg.
In this pre-covid era, the city centre and the inner suburbs contained the CBD, the seat of government, corporate headquarters, cultural facilities as well as shops, offices, services and often finely manicured public gardens.
Indeed, all the apparatus required to administer the needs and the interests of an entire state were contained within the rich creamy yolk at the centre of our capital cities.
This inner-city yolk was (and remains) surrounded by the flat egg-white (or albumen) of suburbia that spread outwards in every direction until it either ran out of puff or it bumped into the bay, the coast or the hills.
The underlying logic behind the fried-egg model of Australian cities was that many suburban workers commuted daily to inner-city workplaces.
Suburbia evolved because Depression-raised, post-war, Australians associated a separate house on a separate block of land “out in the suburbs” with a better quality of life, than the alternative of living in a cramped and dingy inner-city terrace.
But the pandemic has challenged this logic. Prior to the lockdowns barely five per cent of workers worked from home, according to census figures. In Melbourne during its lockdowns, this proportion is thought to have topped 45 per cent.
A new rhythm of urban life
The pandemic drove many Australians to bunker down in their suburban homes, thus changing the narrative of urban life.
We’re now far less inclined to travel into the city centre for work, for entertainment, or for a restaurant meal for that matter. We’re much more likely to watch Netflix at home, order Uber Eats, or patriotically support a local café.
And there’s no doubt that the workplace has changed too. The pandemic has demonstrated to many employers that workers can be just as productive, if not more productive, working from a remote location.
Some say in due course everything will return to normal. I say that things will resettle to a new normal where a higher proportion of workers work from home – at least for at least part of the week – maybe 10 per cent, or higher.
Most Australians don’t want to commute every working day for the rest of their working life. Indeed, many believe they can deliver just as much value for their employer from their home ‘Zoom office’.
The 20-minute city
For 20 years town planners have been banging on about the need to re-organise the metropolis into a collection of ‘20-minute cities’.
This is the idea of living, working, shopping and going to school all within a 20-minute drive, walk or bike ride of the family home. The concept derived from an early version of the Paris strategic plan which promoted a policy of providing services allowing Parisiennes to live and work within a single arrondissement.
The Australian iteration of this concept is more likely to be, say, a collection of 30-minute cities. This is not a new concept; but it has been given new life by the rise of the work from home movement.
And the benefits are substantial.
Every five percentage-point uplift in the proportion of workers working from home takes 600,000 commuters off the roads, based on census figures1.
This reduces carbon emissions, lessens the pressure on public transport, is kinder to our collective mental health, and frees up time that can otherwise be invested in achieving better family, community, health (or work!) outcomes.
Lasting impacts on service delivery
The scale of the pandemic has forced governments and private businesses to adapt, to create new models of support and service delivery in order to manage emerging needs, and to meet market expectations.
The collective response has raised general expectations of choice and convenience in how services are accessed.
The rise of Telehealth, the telephone medical consultation service which boomed during lockdown, is a good example.
If the greater preference of Australians to work from home does indeed gather momentum—and remains part of our way of life—then it has implications for where and how we will choose to access services.
In this brave new post-covid world, digital platforms could be supported by multi-purpose service delivery centres positioned at strategic locations throughout the suburbs. Another option might be to partner with service delivery providers either from different branches of government or from the private sector.
Dedicated hub-and-spoke service delivery facilities could also operate as a communal work-near-home option for government employees, and especially for those who prefer not to commute from city-edge to city-centre or who do not have the luxury of a dedicated ‘Zoom room’.
The pandemic will change our generation
It’s said that the generation of Australians who “touched the Great Depression” were frugal for the rest of their lives. The coronavirus pandemic will change our generation too.
In the future we will be more focussed on hand washing and on covering our mouth while coughing; perhaps wearing masks will become commonplace on public transport. But that’s not all.
The average household will be more tech-savvy and we’re more likely to place an even greater value on personal connections. We’ll be more community and home focussed and more supportive of local businesses.
And I am sure we will seek even greater flexibility in how we engage with government (and other) services, whether that be online, via an app, over the phone or within a 20-minute drive, walk or bicycle ride of the family home.
Bernard Salt AM is executive director of The Demographics Group.