News from the front desk, Issue 532: Apparently, Sydney is now a 60 per cent city. The buses, the trains, the ferries all reported this, even before the current lockdowns.

Covid or no Covid, Sydney has now lost a third of its workforce to the home as workers and bosses realise the sky does not fall in when we work away from the office. But it leaves a big hole in the centre of our global city.

What we need is a new future for the Sydney CBD, one that will entice people back.

Arup’s David Harding, who’s taking part in a group organised by Committee for Sydney to find this new future, says people might enjoy a beautiful office building to work in but what they find compelling is what’s around the building – they want an interesting engaging environment they enjoy before, sometimes during, and after work.

Westfields won’t do it… no excitement there. Just unadulterated highly programmed consumerism that’s actually boring and predictable and does nothing for the wider community.

A few decades ago now, when big mining companies set up shop in Perth, they struggled to attract the bright young talent. Salary packages didn’t cut it; they wanted action and fun after work. So the miners spent big money on helping create a nightlife.

Even today’s doggedly hardworking young professionals want places to play.

So what do you do with the Sydney CBD?

Harding reckons the big thing missing is fun – a bit of laughter and joy. Young people with their kids, older folk walking their dog. The kind of normal human and diverse activity you might see in Melbourne because so many people live there. There are residents in the Sydney CBD too, but with apartment prices reaching $13 million for two bedrooms (we kid you not: the new building going up above the former David Jones store is quoting this figure) that’s hardly likely to attract the mums and dads with kids or the ordinary guy with a dog.

(In fact with three-bedroom apartments around $40 million, it’s no surprise the marketing agent says some of the buyers might well be “global” people who spend a night or two in the apartment every year.) Sounds like a perfect gilt-edged investment.

The trouble is that Sydney’s success as a true global city, perfect for corporate headquarters, has turned out to be its Achilles heel. It’s created a monoculture of the moneyed class – both business and private – that Covid has revealed to be as substantial as a hologram.

Once bosses and workers alike realised, in an “emperor has no clothes” kind of way, that they could work just as well at home, huge office rents became suddenly redundant. People like Harding say that’s the future, get used to it, and let’s use the opportunity to make Sydney a better place.

He’s not alone. Many people have been pondering this question. Even The Fifth Estate late last year started developing ideas – perhaps a program that would fill empty ground floor office spaces with artisans from particular regional areas, long tables for food celebrations, or changing museums showcasing bright green ideas, such as Professor Sara Wilkinson’s work at UTS with algae as an alternative energy source, or the robots her team have developed to service the massive green walls such as at Central Park. Imagine these ideas out for public consumption, open for mum, dad and the kids to enjoy on a weekend trip to town.

Harding says there’s already models for this in European cities where it’s not just the ground floor but first two floors or so that are activated with exciting creative ideas that have nothing to do with corporate life.

Who cares what happens above? he says. And wouldn’t this a more interesting place to come to work?

We called our project “Falling in love again with the CBD.” But the name was wrong. We need to fall in love with the Sydney CBD for the first time.

In Melbourne, the vibe is entirely different.

There’s a sense of excitement bred by decades of exactly the kind of fine grained mixed activity that Elizabeth Farrelly recently described to a crowd in Canberra as “pokeability“.

There are laneways and arcades to explore each with their own unique character, nooks and crannies that will be there when we’re finally post Covid. A city library jammed up against tight young crowds and cool knockabout cafes like in Flinders Lane, boutique shops run by passionate young designers or artists, or retailers selling Made in Melbourne stuff.

We’ve not yet seen a Made in Sydney shop.

Why not?

Turns out that these fragile products of the human imagination and drive to activation also need the assistance of cold hard cash to survive – at least in the form of cheap rents in places that offer good interaction with their markets and customers.

Fringe areas of the inner Sydney have had their own interesting and unique character and too and places such as Parramatta, Cabramatta and regional centres such as Newcastle are fast developing this intensity – probably on the back of Sydney pushing the creatives further afield through rising real estate prices.

The Sydney CBD though has a long way to go. Its atmosphere has been of suits and serious people striding between meetings.

Westfields won’t do it… no excitement there. Just unadulterated highly programmed consumerism that’s actually boring and predictable and does nothing for the wider community. The irony is that the chain stores these behemoths offer deliberately aim for predictability and, well, Westies have never actually been forthcoming on the environmental community front either, resisting point-blank any move to have the NABERS (CBD) energy disclosure regime extended to shopping centres. Why, we don’t know. So many of their compatriots don’t mind and were doing well on energy efficiency at least before Covid hit.

We’re more positive about the chances for the big commercial  property owners to contribute to the public spiritedness that’s needed for change. They have a track record with companies such as Mirvac and its social enterprise café at 200 George Street and Charter Hall, which a few years back, donated some empty space at a lower north shore office building to artists, much to the delight of the corporate tenants above.

Charity has its own rewards in more ways than one.

Let’s get rid of the hologram weasel words

Occasionally we get a voice that speaks straight to the heart of the matter.

An article by Mia Ifergan we posted this week did it for us.

This young, “20 something” planner spent three months analysing the climate action plans of 15 local governments.

She celebrated local councils declaring a climate emergency but also called out the parts of the action plans in which these councils are lacking.

Especially when they use words she no longer cares for, she says. Such as “aim to” and “advocate” and “support”.

Weasel words?

Maybe not intentionally but certainly we imagine they are the words insisted on by the media unit or their close cousins the legal department.

Mia had some tough conclusions to draw.

Read the article for the full impact of her thinking. We’ll bet there’s an important future for such a thinker and we’re excited she’s picked the planning profession in which to make an impact because we agree when she says, “I’ve come to believe that the key to meaningful action lies somewhere in our socio-spatial processes”.

The gap between intentions and execution is large and often dangerous.

There’s a movement that says we should make a declaration, – shoot for the moon, in a JFK kind of way – and worry about how to get there later. But you need to balance that with a plan for action that gives people certainty that the goals are genuine and could even be attainable

New US president Joe Biden too is being held to account in an article by our US correspondent Mollie Hersh who’s back (after a Covid-interrupted internship with us ) graduating from Boston University, and now based in New York. She’s picked up on the backlash as Biden looks to wind back some of his green agenda, under pressure no doubt – but still, a promise is a promise.

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  1. As an office worker, there is an interesting back-lash phenomena going on. First, companies aren’t going to move their headquarters, so they have to attract employees back to their office. This is being met with some resistance by employees that have gotten used to the executive cafeteria in their home. So, hybridized work plans are being planned for, with 2-4 days per week at the office.

    Then, to save costs and space newer ‘hoteling’ workstations where there are not assigned spaces is becoming the norm. Whether these will be well received is not clear.

    The result, though is that the largest portion of employees leaving the workspace are older more seasoned employees who simply decide to retire early. They’ve learned to do less during COVID and see no reason to return.

    All of this will have an interesting effect on what work will be like in the future, and that will impact larger cities that have to cope with a more remote workforce. I would predict that there will be an equilibrium found between the cities (who will be reduced, including a drop in real estate values) and the suburbs (who will correspondingly increase). This will also have tangible effects on commuting, energy usage, and all the other items that go into our post-COVID world.