The coronavirus pandemic is having a profound effect on the Australian way of life, especially in our cities.
It is accelerating the trend towards digitisation in both the home and in the workplace; it is changing how and where we work; it is changing the way we expect to access services; and it is placing the home much closer to the centre of everyday life.
The big question is whether these 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, a range of 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 spreads outwards in every direction until it either runs out of puff or it bumps 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 the concept of 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 what they considered to be 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 which prompted a change to the narrative of urban life.
We’re now far less inclined to travel into the city centre for work, for entertainment, to access medical or financial services, or to simply access a restaurant meal for that matter.
Indeed, we’re much more likely to watch Netflix at home, to order Uber Eats, to consult a doctor via telehealth, or to patriotically support local business by going to a neighbourhood 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 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 lives. Indeed, many believe they can deliver just as much value for their employer from the comfort of their home ‘Zoom Room’ home 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, going to school or to a medical appointment 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 a range of services in a single arrondissement so that Parisiennes could live, work and play within their local areas.
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 private businesses and governments to adapt, to create new models of support and service delivery in order to meet emerging needs and evolving market expectations.
The collective response has raised the bar in terms of how services are accessed. The rise of Telehealth, the telephone medical consultation service which boomed during lockdown, is a good example.
And so too is the expectation that restaurant bookings are done online, café ordering is done via phone apps, and shopping is ordered online and delivered by an expanding cohort of dedicated deliverers. Whilst these things may have been done this way pre-COVID, it is now an assumption that this is the new norm.
The idea of going to the office or of going to university is being tweaked by the use of technology and by accessing local facilities and services. Co-working spaces scattered throughout the suburbs are sure to be one response and helping to create the idea of the 20-minute city.
If the greater preference of Australians to work (and study and shop and access GP services) from home does gather momentum — and it remains part of our way of life — then it has implications for how business structures its service delivery models across the city.
Specialist services such as those in finance (e.g. accounting), law, technology (e.g. IT), advertising, media and medicine that once clustered in and near the CBD would be flung out to strategically positioned suburbs central to each 20-minute component of the greater metropolis. And some specialist services and businesses might need to leverage existing networks or third parties to deliver in the 20-minute city.
For those without the capacity for a dedicated home office there may be a need to develop a series of co-working spaces which would attract other corporate support and office-supply services.
In this brave new post-COVID world a range of new digital platforms would emerge to enable frictionless service delivery.
The pandemic will change our behaviour
It is 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 far more focussed on sanitation matters like hand washing and covering our mouth while coughing. Perhaps the wearing of facemasks will become commonplace on public transport long after the pandemic has subsided.
But that’s not all.
The average household is already becoming more tech-savvy and more likely to place an even greater value on personal connections. In the future we’ll be more community and home focussed and more supportive of local businesses. These will be the learnt lessons of the pandemic.
The pandemic has caused pain and disruption to many Australians. But there are some effects and changes that I think are worth hanging on to. Greater cleanliness and a stronger focus on family and community is surely a good thing.
But so too is the idea of creating stronger, more activated, suburban (20-minute) regions where we’ll have many of the services we need within our local area.
If I am right and this is the way of the future for our cities and communities then business and government should be thinking about service delivery models that align with the post-COVID way of life in Australian cities.