Habits of hi­ber­na­tion could be here to stay

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - BERNARD SALT

The com­ing of the coro­n­avirus has pro­foundly af­fected the Aus­tralian way of life.

New con­cepts such as lock­down and so­cial dis­tanc­ing, as well as old ideas such as work­ing from home, are the piv­ots around which the coro­n­avirus threat re­volves. The ques­tion is the ex­tent to which these new be­hav­iours might re­shape the way we live, work and play in the fu­ture. Will the push to work from home gather mo­men­tum? Will we feel com­fort­able eat­ing and drink­ing cheek by jowl in pubs and cafes? How com­fort­able will we feel cram­ming into train car­riages?

The com­ing of the coro­n­avirus has pro­foundly im­pacted the Aus­tralian way of life.

New con­cepts such as lock­down and so­cial dis­tanc­ing, as well as old ideas such as work­ing from home, are the piv­ots around which the coro­n­avirus threat re­volves. The ques­tion is the ex­tent to which these new and reimag­ined be­hav­iours might re­shape the way we live, work and play in the fu­ture.

Will the push to work from home gather mo­men­tum? Will we feel com­fort­able eat­ing and drink­ing cheek by jowl in pubs and cafes? How com­fort­able will we feel cram­ming into train car­riages, not so much later this year but through­out the 2020s? How many of the pro­to­cols that we fol­lowed to ward off con­ta­gion might carry into the fu­ture, and for how long?

These are im­por­tant ques­tions be­cause they go to the nub of the Aus­tralian ur­ban life. And nowhere are the im­pli­ca­tions for the Aus­tralian way of life greater than in the cen­tral busi­ness dis­tricts of our largest cities. If work from home gath­ers mo­men­tum, as I think it will, then what be­comes of city of­fice space? And if peo­ple don’t feel com­fort­able us­ing public trans­port, how will we get about the city?

As for those trendy cafes and bars where con­ges­tion and tight ta­bles are part of the at­mos­phere, well, we didn’t quite re­alise the ex­tent to which they op­er­ated on the as­sump­tion that no one in there might carry a deadly in­fec­tion.

And therein lies the prob­lem.

Long-term be­hav­iours

Deep down we know that the COVID-19 pan­demic is un­likely to be a one-off. The greater the vol­ume of air travel be­tween cities in a glob­alised and in­creas­ingly mid­dle-class world, the greater the risk of con­ta­gion.

Dur­ing the 21st cen­tury, Aus­tralia must be­come adept at man­ag­ing pan­demics to the ex­tent that town plan­ning tech­niques, bud­get pro­vi­sions, gro­cery items, public trans­port and the health­care in­dus­try all have a role to play in con­tain­ing risk.

Build­ing in pro­tec­tion against pos­si­ble con­ta­gion is a bit like build­ing back­yard bomb shel­ters in the 1950s to man­age the risk of nu­clear fall­out. Even­tu­ally, by the 1990s, af­ter the col­lapse of the Berlin Wall, the threat of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion sub­sided, although other threats such as asym­met­ric war­fare via ter­ror­ism emerged to take its place.

With the ad­vent of a vac­cine or ef­fec­tive treat­ments, we will move on from the threat of con­ta­gion and worry about other threats to hu­man ex­is­tence.

But not be­fore set­ting in place coro­n­avirus-in­spired be­hav­iours that will be car­ried for­ward. Those who re­mem­bered the Great De­pres­sion, even as young kids, were fru­gal all their lives, in­clud­ing up to 80 years later amid a time of ex­cess and plenty.

CBD hotspots

Per­haps the place with most to lose from a ramp­ing-up of our de­ter­mi­na­tion to avert out­breaks is the CBD. The most densely pop­u­lated parts of the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent flank the CBDs in all cap­i­tal cities. It’s hard to so­cial dis­tance in places such as The Rocks and Kings Cross in Syd­ney, or Prahran and South­bank in Mel­bourne or For­ti­tude Val­ley in Bris­bane.

The at­trac­tion of the in­ner-city life­style isn’t just walk­ing-dis­tance prox­im­ity to CBD work­places, but the sense of be­ing at the cen­tre of things. All that buzzi­ness and all that busy­ness, once so much a real-es­tate as­set, now looks like a li­a­bil­ity. Maybe mil­len­ni­als won’t clam­our for min­i­mal­ist apart­ments in nearby Padding­ton but will seek out the space and the salubrity of dis­tant Hornsby?

The CBDs of Aus­tralia’s big­gest cities act like por­tals to the global econ­omy; they are filled with glit­ter­ing tow­ers, knowl­edge work­ers, over­seas tourists and, most lu­cra­tively, an abun­dance of for­eign stu­dents.

The best of Syd­ney, Mel­bourne and Bris­bane is show­cased to our worldly vis­i­tors in the CBD and its most glam­orous precincts in­clud­ing the cafe, bar, en­ter­tain­ment and gam­ing precincts. Here is a fu­sion of con­ges­tion, global con­nec­tiv­ity and he­do­nis­tic spend­ing that must be har­nessed and made to com­ply with the new rules of the post-corona world.

In­deed, in this brave new world the city, the CBD, and its fringes, must change. For the bal­ance of this year at the very least, there will be no stu­dents, no tourists and pos­si­bly fewer knowl­edge work­ers and shop­pers to spill like mor­tar be­tween the cor­po­rate tow­ers. In this world the CBD be­comes more mea­sured; less buzzy; less busy; a public place to be nav­i­gated ten­ta­tively, gin­gerly, and which is at odds with its fren­zied pre-corona per­sona.

In the longer term, how­ever, and es­pe­cially if Aus­tralia can man­age the re­cov­ery as well as we have the lock­down, over­seas tourists and for­eign stu­dents will surely re­gard our na­tion as a safe des­ti­na­tion and come in even greater num­bers. And es­pe­cially when Aus­tralia is com­pared with Bri­tain and the US.

Smashed avo for $32

But even so, the chichi cafes of the in­ner city must rein in and then space out their seat­ing to re­as­sure cus­tomers jumpy about the pos­si­bil­ity of in­fec­tion.

I am not con­vinced that the eco­nom­ics of restau­rant busi­nesses built on the logic of densely packed ta­bles can work with fewer ta­bles in a looser lay­out. If cafe op­er­a­tors need more turnover from fewer cus­tomers, then ex­pect smashed av­o­cado with crum­bled feta on five-grain toast to be priced at $32 a pop as op­posed to $22.

Hol­low tro­phies

At the time of the last cen­sus there were about a third of a mil­lion jobs in the Syd­ney CBD north of Park Street. The Mel­bourne grid at this time (ex­clud­ing Dock­lands) con­tained about a quar­ter of a mil­lion jobs. The shift to work­ing from home will af­fect a pro­por­tion of the knowl­edge worker com­po­nent of this work­force.

Since the late 1990s, barely 4-5 per cent of the Aus­tralian work­force has worked from home. The next cen­sus, due to be con­ducted in Au­gust next year, will show per­haps 10 per cent work­ing from home. I think this num­ber can be shaved off the CBD of­fice mar­ket, and else­where, with­out nec­es­sar­ily dev­as­tat­ing prop­erty val­ues, and es­pe­cially in pre­mium build­ings in prime lo­ca­tions in a grow­ing econ­omy.

Lesser build­ings in off-prime lo­ca­tions, with more mar­ginal ten­ants, in a con­tract­ing econ­omy, are a dif­fer­ent story, es­pe­cially if the work-from-home push jumps to, say, 20 per cent of the work­force. That’s when CBD of­fice tow­ers might stand like hol­low tro­phies to an­other time.

Off the buses

The greater im­pact, I think, is likely to be felt on the trams, trains and buses, which form the ba­sis of the public trans­port net­work. Our roads sim­ply can­not op­er­ate with, say, 10 per cent (or more) of public trans­port users switch­ing to pri­vate cars. Stag­gered start­ing hours might be part of the so­lu­tion; so too work­ing from home a day or two a week. This could man­i­fest in cor­po­rate en­ti­ties re-leas­ing, say, one less floor next time round.

In this world, the CBD strug­gles to at­tract work­ers un­com­fort­able with com­mut­ing and shop­pers are now in­creas­ingly drawn to flag­ship stores in large en­closed sub­ur­ban cen­tres, where mass tem­per­a­ture checks give ev­ery­one com­fort. Who knows what con­tam­i­na­tion might flow into and out of the CBD’s ac­ti­vated streets?

Ur­ban life forms

Nev­er­the­less cor­po­rates need a flash ad­dress, nam­ing rights, an el­e­gant en­trance and a crit­i­cal mass of staff to pro­ject the sense of the brand. But the back of­fice, the con­sul­tants, the con­trac­tors, can be flung out of the CBD, pro­pelled by cen­trifu­gal forces to hidey holes in the sub­urbs and to fast-evolv­ing work-near-home col­lab­o­ra­tion spa­ces. It’s not so much a wrench­ing of the ex­ist­ing of­fice work­force out of the CBD as it is a si­phon­ing-off of fu­ture growth.

The CBD has been rid­ing high for more than a decade and so too have the life forms that sit tight and close, like a tea cosy, in­clud­ing the hip­sters, the knowl­edge work­ers, the in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, the vis­i­tors and the down­shift­ing cor­po­rate elites strung out along St Kilda Road and bunched up in Potts Point.

Safety in the sub­urbs

By the time of the 2016 cen­sus, a so­cial/cul­tural di­vide had sur­faced be­tween the in­ner city and sub­ur­bia at the 5km mark. The al­lure of the CBD sought out and ad­mit­ted the young, the ed­u­cated, the child­less and in­deed the god­less into its con­fines. In the post-corona world, this cul­tural di­vide must weaken as the hu­man ge­og­ra­phy of Aus­tralian cities is pulled to­wards the safety of sub­ur­bia, which is at odds with re­cent trends. This isn’t so much a tec­tonic shift as it is a process of shift­ing sands.

Thus far in the 21st cen­tury as the econ­omy ac­cel­er­ated to­wards knowl­edge work, as the na­tion glob­alised and out­sourced to China, the pre­mium at­tached to the CBD and its at­ten­dant in­ner sub­urbs es­ca­lated. Prop­erty prices sky­rock­eted. The best jobs, the most pres­ti­gious cor­po­rates, were all in the CBD and the in­ner city.

Goodbye to ar­ro­gance

In the post-corona world, the CBD is still the fo­cal point — it has an unas­sail­able crit­i­cal mass — but it never quite re­gains the oomph, the dom­i­nance, the haughty ar­ro­gance that it had dur­ing the 2010s. In this new world the sub­urbs are reimag­ined as tetchy, safe, cool places: more like Sil­i­con Val­ley, less like New York City.

And the city cen­tre, though still im­por­tant, is buf­feted by the winds of change. It still at­tracts the cor­po­rates, the ad­min­is­tra­tors, a ded­i­cated band of shop­pers and work­ers. But at night in the small hours it’s a dif­fer­ent world that at­tracts the unan­chored rem­nants of corona’s big bang, namely the dis­con­nected and the dis­en­fran­chised who seem drawn to this once pow­er­ful place that stood at the apex of Aus­tralian ur­ban life.

AARON FRAN­CIS

In­vesta group ex­ec­u­tive Sally Franklin and gen­eral man­ager Chris Moli­naro in one of the com­pany’s of­fice lifts in Collins Street, Mel­bourne

Source: JLL, Mac­quarie Re­search, May 2020

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