Many things are currently as clear as mud. Is it safe to be old now and leave one’s house or not? Should my child’s teacher be compelled to return to school to do their job?
Is this Covid thing the worst thing since a rat got off a boat in London and spread the Black Death or is this an overblown cold whose management has been mucked up by inexperienced and panicky politicians, paying too much attention to bad modelling and bullying social media? Above all: will Covid finally kill the pub?
Oh and for good measure, and the subject of this column: will Covid kill the CBD?
I’ve raised this before but having seen no effective action on this rather important question in either the UK or Australia I raise it again.
Are we really going to do what we appear to be doing, that is, destroying our city centres and main office districts? And doing so without any sign of a fightback from anyone – including the big corporations, media, governments, unions, universities and indeed we who read this esteemed journal?
Are there no economists out there who think what is happening is nuts? Are there no mass transport advocates fighting to the last to save their beloved modes? Are there no interior designers and office owners showing us how we can get 85 per cent and more of staff back into their offices safely?
Where are the health experts pointing out how disastrous for personal health is home-working in comparison with walking to the rail station or bus stop for the daily commute?
Where are the unions pointing out how disempowered workers are when dispersed at home as they now are? And how vulnerable they will be to erosion of their rights and indeed pay, as employers will soon start devolving their jobs permanently away from, say, the City of London not to Croydon in outer London, or from Sydney to Penrith, but to Bangalore or somewhere even cheaper?
Where are the economists shouting out that a society that disaggregates like we are seeing is throwing away the benefits of agglomeration and indeed centuries of learning about agglomeration economics – reminding us that the office and the street outside the office is where most economic value is added and spillover benefits realised?
I’m willing to have a discussion with anyone, even if they think all this destruction of value and yes, lives, is unavoidable (I don’t) but not if they won’t recognise that our collective passivity in the face of this ruination of the urban is nuts.
This sign of civilisation’s exhaustion is something we are not seeing, I have to point out, in Singapore and other Asian cities, or it must be said, in Stockholm.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong supporter of the revival of regional cities in Australia as in the UK. They have suffered for too long from policies favouring the overheating of London in the UK and the state capital cities in Australia.
There are indeed opportunities from the travails of the CBD office for them. Some rebalancing is necessary and overdue. Covid has galvanised this possibility and I really want something structurally better for Australian and UK cities and communities to come out the other side of the virus.
The problem is that we forget that radical homeworking endangers those cities too and may disrupt or weaken their own process of agglomeration whose progress has been vital to their regions’ recoveries, such as they are, over the last few decades.
The flight of retail capacity from all town centres is hugely worrying – and it has been speeded up by Covid dramatically, as people at home don’t visit physical shops and have discovered “clicks” so don’t feel they need “bricks”.
We need a fightback. Not against the pandemic as this is a collective effort already underway.
The fight back is for the city especially those cities of what you might call a human scale. Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the city! Are you joining the fight?