Photo by Dan Preindl on Unsplash

Melbourne is “open for business”. The Lord Mayor, Sally Capp is entreating a return to the CBD, while comedian Dilruk Jayasinha cures his FOMO by racing from one cultural event to another.   

Recent commentary is focused on a property led recovery for the central city, but this should not guide strategies for planning the future of our cities.  

A year after COVID-19 lockdowns led to a work from home habit for many in service sector roles, the bulk of employees in Australia’s Central Business Districts, and the economic costs of this disruption to small retailers, the property sector and others is resulting in a firm push for a return to (something like) normal. Melbourne’s hard lock down revealed this the most.  

But before we ask, “how to bring the buzz back into Melbourne”, isn’t now the time to ask the more fundamental question – what function does a CBD serve and for whom? Especially in a post-COVID world with increased worker flexibility and amid a climate emergency. 

For decades Australian cities, including Melbourne, have recognised the risks and costs of centralised employment and sought models to relocate higher income jobs into suburban centres.  Melbourne’s current metropolitan strategy, Plan Melbourne, aspires for suburban “national employment and innovation clusters” and the creation of “20-minute neighbourhoods”.  These are the latest strategic planning efforts to decentralise Melbourne’s traditional mono-centric development, an effort going back to at least the 1954 Plan for Melbourne

Despite these attempts, employment growth in Melbourne has been remarkably centralised in recent decades, especially in higher paid service sector roles. The decline of suburban manufacturing work in the 1980s was not replaced by the same level of new job growth in those areas.   

This raises the questions of why we should seek to go back to a model that required long commutes for many, placed pressure on our environmental systems and is largely in conflict with long-standing policy objectives.   

While the shock of COVID-19 change is far from ideal, neither is a headlong rush to business-as-usual. While the current situation does not bode well for the CBD property sector, it is not often that circumstances and public preferences align in a planning orthodoxy like metropolitan decentralisation and the polycentric city. 

A “doughnut” city? 

With office vacancy in the CBD the highest it’s been since 1997 (with Melbourne and Sydney office vacancy rates at 13 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively), many businesses are selling off all-or-part of their CBD office footprint amid growing interest in work-from-home and hybrid office models.  

Previous concern of a “doughnut” city emerging in Melbourne, however, focused on a lifeless or bland CBD, due in large part to many people choosing not to live in the CBD as suburbanisation boomed (although without local jobs and services to match). This spurred the development of the “Postcode 3000” project in the 1990s, aimed at building more housing stock in the CBD to revitalise the city centre.  

The plan was considered a success, spurring a still celebrated “cafe culture” and dramatically repopulated CBD – while pushing out the precariously housed and homeless population that had found refuge in the doughnut city of preceding decades. This created a level of development – including its by-products, carbon emissions and gentrification – that we have struggled to keep up with, and decentralisation became important once more.

That was until COVID. Given the concern for revitalising CBDs post COVID, much of the current discourse and policy plans has focused heavily on how to bring people and activity back into the CBD via initiatives like hotel vouchers, free public transport and parking, the suspension of traffic congestion levies, activation grants, repurposing buildings into temporary creative spaces and a re-activation campaign. We are seeing a hard push and hurried attempts to “recentralise” the city, much of which seems to be missing critical nuance. This planned return to “business as usual” fails to resolve the issues of social and environmental (in)justice that were previously evident. 

In its most extreme, the pre-COVID decentralisation policy agenda is at odds with a post-COVID recentralisation push. Instead, we argue that this is a policy moment to first reflect on different long standing planning objectives – decentralised cities, local living in the metropolis, and a polycentric city – and to ask, what is the function of the CBD? Who does it serve? Should this look different in a time of a climate emergency? What groups or activities have previously been discouraged from the city centre that could be better accommodated as we re-imagine the role of the CBD? 

What else and what next?

In addition to better developing urban amenity in suburban hubs to service growing needs and capitalise on the embrace of hybrid employment models, we need to critically consider how to make the best use of the qualities of the central city to support a cultural economy, a night-time economy and quality environment for local residents. Genuine employment opportunities in decentralised locations can, in turn, support many of these qualities to also develop beyond the central city.  

The “B” in “CBD” might be at a crossroads, and as Sally Capp and others tweet encouragements for us to #BringBackTheBuzz in Melbourne – the other elusive “B” in CBD’s – it is hard not to wonder if “buzz” is just a place holder for business.  

Instead of rushing to the call of going back to repopulate our CBDd, we must come back to the fundamentals and once more ask ourselves (or re-imagine) – beyond business and physical amenities, what is, and what could be, the function of a CBD? We’ve seen inner-city suburbs support local living, work and play, and increasingly suburbs in the middle and outer ring are making this change. If even more suburban hubs could now meet business, residential and entertainment needs, what role is left for the city – can it contribute something distinct? Is that something a sense of “urban-ness”?  

In domestic tourism campaigns, aimed at encouraging locals to “rediscover Melbourne” by capturing the collective identity of the city, content often speaks to the “energy” of the city or a “distinct Melbourneness”. An intangible, but instantly recognisable quality and atmosphere that throughout lockdowns was almost mourned. Research also shows that cities play a role in our civic identity, and the socio-spatial experience of the “urban” is central in this. While this is significant, it should not be the reserve of a single city centre, it’s an experience that should also be available elsewhere, even if the character and feel are different. By encouraging employment hubs outside of the city, the CBD could still retain its “urban-ness” by focusing on the cultural and night-time economy, while also better hosting communities and activities that had previously been pushed outside of the inner city and city centre. 

Utilising this rare moment, we should be re-imagining the role of our CBDs with a more equitable and sustainable framework in mind, promoting higher quality liveable 20-minute neighbourhoods and suburban hubs across metropolitan Melbourne, while focus on the unique, urban qualities of the CBD that cannot be replicated in the suburbs, that merit preservation. 

Now is the time to plan and invest in our suburbs and re-imagine the function of our cities. Let’s not waste this opportunity.  

Rachel Iampolski is a PhD Student at the RMIT Centre for Urban Research. Associate Professor Andrew Butt is the Associate Dean for the RMIT Sustainability and Urban Planning Program.