The shift in work habits during COVID-19 provides an attractive development opportunity for suburban councils.
Duane Cole believes we are at a pivotal point in the history of urban settlement.
The director of urban design and planning consultancy RobertsDay sees an opportunity to review planning and investment policies, as well as developer and business incentives, to strike an appropriate productivity balance between our cities and suburbs.
Mr Cole said now was the time to embrace behavioural changes arising from COVID-19 to facilitate the urbanisation of our suburbs as part of a wider economic recovery strategy.
“The agglomeration of people and economic activity in our cities establishes them as resilient, economic powerhouses that will continue to be highly productive once we have recovered from the coronavirus,” he said.
“But how will our suburbs fare from this crisis?”
Mr Cole said COVID-19 restrictions had already led to big behavioural changes, notably the shift to work from home and increased use of video conferencing technology, which is likely to be long lasting.
“We could be witnessing the birth of sustained work-from-home practices, or we could see the emergence of local work hubs, winning back wasteful daily travel time and freeing up commercial floorspace to reduce costly overheads,” he said.
“These changes are radical, but for some might result in greater efficiencies, improved service, or even new markets.”
The shift in work habits was highlighted by a recent survey of 2,000 Australians commissioned by National Australia Bank.
In the June quarter survey, 48 per cent said they would work more from home rather than go to the office, up from 32 per cent in the March quarter survey.
Mr Cole said it took COVID-19 to reveal the environmental and social costs – such as carbon emissions and the imposition on work-life balance – of the daily commuting needed to support a city-centric economy and workforce.
Hence, there was more questioning of the commercial demands that had driven the concentration of people and economic activity to city centres.
It also provided an opportunity to grow prosperity in the suburbs and their commercial centres.
“To urbanise our suburbs, it will be necessary for planners to become less reliant on the traditional policy and process approaches in favour of a place-based and outcomes-focused strategy,” Mr Cole said.
This change would also require a cultural shift and a top-down review of the ‘vertical fiscal imbalance’ across all tiers of government.
The assessment of planning proposals needed to look beyond the social and environmental effects, and consider the medium to longer-term financial impact, he said.
This included paying more attention to optimising rate revenue through the productivity of land.
Mr Cole said this was particularly important for local councils that were coming under financial stress as a result of the cost of servicing and maintaining their communities.
Specific suggestions floated by Mr Cole included support for business incubators or remote working hubs in suburban commercial centres.
A more localised workforce would support small hospitality and retail businesses in neighbourhood or regional centres.
“This will improve the productivity of these centres and our communities, while contributing to their fiscal health and the financial resilience of local governments,” Mr Cole told Business News.
Mr Cole encouraged governments to move quickly.
“Our governments need to seize the moment as our economies re-emerge from COVID-19,” he said.
“We must quickly restore our communities if we want to embrace a more localised workforce and position for change.”
The City of Melville recently commissioned RobertsDay and its alliance partner, Urban3, to support the preparation of a municipality-wide economic development plan.
This included an ‘economic MRI’ that involved an assessment of rates revenue on a site-by-site basis.
RobertsDay has also been commissioned by the City of Armadale to develop strategies to improve the functionality of Jull Street mall, which has a high vacancy rate.
“If we can support change for business and people to work remotely, we can reduce carbon emissions, relieve traffic congestion in our cities and return work-life-balance to our workforce and families,” Mr Cole said.
“It could also improve the productivity of our suburbs and, if done well, could reduce the financial burden of many suburban-based local governments.”