"We're throwing away the benefits of agglomeration and indeed centuries of learning about agglomeration economics "

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?

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  1. Tim, much to agree with in this but also this is an inevitable transition to a hybrid work pattern which has been in progress for some time but accelerated by COVID. Some of the outcomes you’ve mentioned have to be balanced by the reduced environmental degradation caused by the daily commute, whether by car or public transport, the improved work life balance of those working from home with less travel time and more time for exercise and self-care. The work I did on the ‘distributed economy’ is an argument against ‘over agglomeration’ and the focus of the economy in compressed CBDs to the detriment of city suburbs, regional cities and towns and rural areas. Agglomeration theory is part of the neo-liberal revolution of economic theory that distorts the city to the function of business rather than citizens and the social needs of their communities. The consequence is the huge inequalities that have emerged between the knowledge classes and the wider workforce. We need a hybrid model with business centres but also with regional work hubs, linked to the centre and effectively part of it. The world has changed and was changing pre-COVID.

  2. A clear argument for the return to ‘business as usual’. But it’s ‘business as usual’ which has given us climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion – and yes, arguably, the pandemic itself. Is that what we really want to go back to? Let’s embrace change, and grab the opportunity to help shape a new future where we keep the best bits of the past and ditch the obsolescent and superfluous. The commute being an obvious example of the latter.
    Yes, “the office and the street outside the office is where most economic value is added” (or perhaps WAS added) but is that REALLY what we want from the urban, an economic value-add?
    Change is difficult, particularly if we resist it. If we embrace it, we can help shape it. Mega-office districts and commuter suburbs, or clean, green, healthy, diverse, decentralised, connected and right-sized urban villages…

  3. A nice defense of the past in the face of an uncertain future.
    I suggest, for the purpose of this argument, that cities are the result of economics rather than human aspirations to be the best they can be as individuals or as a society.

  4. Fight joined Tim & Peter.
    Ali, your points are well taken too.
    Since hierarchy and scale-free distribution are natural phenomena, and since agglomeration economies & psychology favours nodal development (as we’re also social animals), perhaps a middle path is the way forward?
    CoVid has accelerated existing trends; so multi-modal, active, zero-emission people-energy-goods-food transit networks with 4 day working weeks and more flexi-time could well square the circle between the poles expressed in the article and comments.
    So perhaps #MetaLoop and a French 3 day weekend could be the happy, (environmentally & socially sustainable), medium we all seek?

  5. I disagree on a few points, my own family experience of working remotely has been fantastic. We no longer have to loose more than 2 hours each spent commuting. We can finish our daily work and be devoted to our family in seconds. We no longer have the stigma of a child coming into the room, or speaking to us during a meeting, which has now become excepted, but before was seen as totally unprofessional. I have a healthy cooked lunch every day instead of sitting at my desk to eat some take away that I hurriedly grabbed at the nearest outlet. I go for a walk in the late afternoon with the family when I would normally have been stuck on a train shoulder to shoulder with others. The smell of perspiration and body odour permeating my nostrils. People pushing to get a seat when there are so few, coughing and sneezing right on you, as they hold a device in one hand and grip something to steady themselves with the other. I have regular meetings that have been designed just to bolster our team spirit, pizza and drinks organised beforehand and lots of laughs or games organised to keep us engaged with our peers. I am getting to spend so much more quality time with my family, yet our teams work output has almost doubled and work has never been so good. I dread going back to the old fashioned way. An office catch up once a month would suit me fine. By hugely reducing the amount of office space and facilities needed businesses could reduce their costs considerably. The cost of commuting is removed for the worker and it’s a win win situation. We still like to visit the city for it’s cultural offerings, dining and the occasional overnight stay but I’d rather work from home given the choice. I’m still not a fan of online shopping, I like to feel and examine closely items I choose. Sizing which is different with every brand is a huge issue and so always difficult online and it’s hard to imagine whether that item of clothing or shoes suits you till you have tried it on. Colours are never truly represented on line so styling can be difficult when you need to choose a particular shade. My preference will always be to continue shopping in bricks and mortar. But there are some items that you can reorder or buy unseen. More offices In city’s could become homes for those that love to be near the many cultural activities that a city has to offer. It’s a win for all with reduced traffic on the roads and trains allowing less infrastructure pressure in the near future, not to mention the reduction in pollution from keeping all those office spaces heated, cooled and well lit, reduced travel for commuting, less time spent on the road for freight without the congestion will all add to reducing our carbon footprint, reducing costs for businesses and the individual.

  6. Great insights Tim. I am joining up on this fight. We do need small CBD’s of agglomeration in other parts of the city as well as the CBD but we must not reduce the significance of the knowledge economy jobs creating urban opportunities through face-to-face interactions. This is much harder to do on computers though we can reduce travel globally and locally for follow-up conversations. Creating better small CBD’s in the suburbs will need better public transport as well as the traditional services to the main CBD. This need for centralising and decentralising is a contextual debate we need to have and not expect it to be just one and not the other. Well done for reminding us about agglomeration economics Tim!