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Are Australian cities changing for good?

With over 20-years’ experience in urban design and architecture in epicentres across the globe, namely London, Brussels, Singapore and Sydney, it’s fair to say that Michele McSharry, senior associate for Architectus, knows a thing or two about cities. In this exclusive editorial, McSharry shares her insight into how – and why – our cities might never be the same again.

In a recent virtual seminar hosted by the Committee for Sydney, the preeminent American urban designer, Richard Florida reflected on the impact the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic had on the world’s major cities. Within a few short years, global centres returned with a vengeance marking the start of the roaring twenties. In Florida’s words: “urbanism was the greater force”.

More than a century later, the world is more urbanised and global than ever. COVID-19 is causing us to reflect on this as potentially harmful. Major centres such as New York and London fast emerged as epicentres in the pandemic, and a palpable anxiety that cities are no longer safe has begun to take hold. In Australia and New Zealand, there were suggestions that early success controlling outbreaks came down to our relatively dispersed, suburban populations. Yet, this idea ignores the example of large Asian centres where the curve was flattened, suggesting that a swift, pragmatic response of the kind we have seen in the Australia is the superseding factor.

Khao Yai, Thailand. Source: Shutterstock

Khao Yai, Thailand. Source: Shutterstock

For urban designers, this is an important distinction. As American journalist and activist Jane Jacobs noted in her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, we abandon cities to our collective detriment. The urban design alternative of sprawling suburbia leads to social isolation, a decline in innovation and culture, unviable public transport and significant environmental costs. As Florida outlines in The Rise of the Creative Class, great cities are ecosystems for talent and diversity, especially in fields such as media, tech, finance, hospitality and the arts, that rely on urban density to function.

While it is inconceivable that our cities will not remain central to the global economy, it is true that pandemics shape cities. Urban sanitation reforms in the 19th century responded to outbreaks of cholera, smallpox and typhoid. Indeed, systems of quarantining, contact tracing, social distancing and wearing protective equipment were developed over the course of past epidemics. In recent months, many of my conversations with colleagues have centred on how cities will be redefined this time around.

Unquestionably, transport represents the biggest challenge to re-opening cities. In May, Transport for NSW announced a 75 per cent reduction in train, bus and ferry capacity to comply with social distancing requirements, rendering public transport unviable as a mass transit system for the foreseeable future. With spooked commuters unlikely to want to return to the packed public transport systems of the past, there are mounting concerns that the use of private cars will dramatically increase. Cars are the enemy of great cities; roads and parking occupy precious space and impact on pedestrian amenity.

Paulista Avenue, Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil. The main street is closed to traffic every Sunday afternoon for people to use.

Paulista Avenue, Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil. The main street is closed to traffic every Sunday afternoon for people to use. Source: Shutterstock.

On a more encouraging note, cites around the world are scrambling to adapt infrastructure to accommodate an upsurge in cyclists and walkers. If they rise to this challenge, it is possible that the pandemic will trigger a marked and long-term shift to more active solo transport modes.

Australian’s working habits are also unlikely to return to past norms. Many organisations are discovering for the first time that staff can work efficiently from home; this may underpin ongoing increases in worker flexibility. Reorganising working hours (e.g. more people working from home, staggered start and finish times) would considerably reduce public transport peak-hour loads.

There are other potential flow-on effects. Some larger employers could eventually decentralise their office space and provide a network of smaller local offices within walking or cycling distance of workers’ homes. Others may broaden recruitment to encompass regional cities, leading to a growth in population serving employment that could eventually result in regional employment hubs.

Two months of working or learning from home has led many Australians to appreciate just how important our homes and local communities are to our wellbeing. Urban design has long sought ways to create quality housing choices within neighbourhoods that will suit people over the course of their lifetimes – where younger people can start families and older people can age in communities they are familiar with.

Industry Lanes, designed by Architectus is a new generation of workplace which draws on the local vernacular and urban amenity of Melbourne’s inner-city neighbourhood of Richmond.

Industry Lanes, designed by Architectus is a new generation of workplace which draws on the local vernacular and urban amenity of Melbourne’s inner-city neighbourhood of Richmond.

Urban design also seeks ways to build and strengthen local community hubs in the neighbourhoods surrounding our homes that include close access to transport and local parks (which have become an important respite for many during lockdown). It may be a long time before people feel like visiting crowded city shopping centres and cultural precincts, but local offerings – boutiques, bookshops, libraries, cafes and restaurants – are likely to bounce back more quickly as people return to the neighbourhood shops that are familiar and feel safer.

In the past, cities have navigated the aftermath of pandemics, depressions and wars with reforms that question existing systems and structures. Fuelled by unchecked capitalism, major cities having been growing inequitable and unsustainable. The pandemic has not only shone a light on this, it is suggesting new paths forward. If governments support public infrastructure and green spaces, workers have greater flexibility, and we invest in the urban design of local neighbourhoods, our cities might emerge from this more resilient, liveable and dynamic than before. 

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