Photo by Chandler Cruttenden on Unsplash

News from the front issue 513: The world has put creative and collaborative responses to Covid and climate on fast forward. There are even signs of more humanitarian and politically intelligent frameworks stirring. In the US the new Biden administration is focusing its Covid and climate action on outcomes that tackle economic and racially-based disadvantage. And cleverly it looks like these will utilise a whole of government approach, something quite novel in our part of the world.

In Australia the Reserve Bank, perhaps emboldened by this overt nod to equity from its cousins across the Pacific, has recently dared mention the “fairness” word in public, to suggest there are more than sound economic reasons to not wind back JobKeeper to its previous level (clearly, disgraceful for a country so rich.)

Overseas another Aussie is making waves. Western Australian mining magnate Twiggy Forrest been scouring the world during Covid, touring 47 countries to find clean energy.

“The journey to replace fossil fuels with green energy has been moving at glacial speed for decades — but is now violently on the move,” Forrest told the Financial Times, which cited Forrest’s ABC’s Boyer lecture from 24 January.

According to Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organization, the article continues, there is “an inflection taking place.

“If you compare the world today to the world 18 months ago, the big difference is that?.?.?.?only 25 per cent of the world had a decarbonisation horizon. Today, 75 per cent of the world economy has a decarbonisation horizon. This is a major shift.”

Canberra, meanwhile, has the whole of Australia rivetted, watching the PM Scott Morrison’s complex crab walk away from loving coal. Or is it a two-step? Or a boiling frog syndrome. Listen to this fun new podcast from the Energy Efficiency Council and decide for yourself.)

Among the nuggets from the podcast are the observations of the mounting pressures that threatens to topple the PM into the pile up of action that’s already under way globally. Whether he wants it or not.

The Australian Industry Group’s s Tennant Reed outlines the major climate focused events that will bring this home to the PM on a very personal level: Biden’s global leaders’ climate summit on 22 April, the G7 mid year in England, the G20 in Rome and the COP 26 in Glasgow later in the year.

The Property Council’s Frankie Muskovic thinks the markers point to an election towards the end of this year, possibly aligned with one of these big events. By then the vaccine will hopefully have calmed the voters and stimulus packages helped reactivate the economy.

Muskovic, who focuses on policy, is sure the federal government is “very much taking notice of the Biden administration and looking at what might be done”. For now, she says, “it’s happening quietly, but it’s happening”.

Where the Opposition is on this is perplexing to say the least. It’s like it’s finally stumbled on an economic strategy for climate action when the economic reasons are already roaring and when the rest of the world has finally accepted the moral – and existential – imperative to act, fast.

Sadly, the shadow government is looks too true to its moniker right now and failing to find its own shape.

At the state, city and corporate level Covid is the big motivator for change. But climate and energy are firmly part of the desired outcomes.

Earlier this week we looked at Victoria, which, thanks to Covid again, has embraced strong solar and energy efficiency action. In a similar vein to the US the focus is also on equity with a huge $5 billion social housing program that’s mobilising a raft of collaboration to ensure what’s delivered is sustainable and future proof.

NSW on Friday stepped up its new clean energy mantra announcing the world’s biggest solar battery would be built at Kurri Kurri in the Hunter Valley, which already has the infrastructure for good grid connection and industry customers, in a beautiful nod to the narrative that dirty old energy can transition to clean.

City wise there’s also big action driven by advocacy groups, think tanks in collaboration with their industry partners, and local governments all trying to reactivate the hollowed hearts of the CBDs whether city or suburban.

On Monday for instance Committee for Sydney is holding a Sydney Summit, the first in a new annual series, to hear collaborative ideas from its corporate members and to flag its own recovery strategies in key area of planning, mobility, economy, governance, resilience and culture.

On Tuesday the week’s related events will bring well know urban provocateur Richard Florida direct to interested desktops.

The committee, under Gabriel Metcalf, has been started to make a bigger impact recent times, pumping out a bevy of interesting reports and ideas that promise to ratchet up discussion for the built environment to something beyond the tired old shibboleths, such as how the entire city’s woes will be solved if only we fast track the planning approvals process.

But then again there are some bright new minds to impress in Oz, thanks to Covid. Again.

According to the committee’s newly appointed director of corporate communications Matt Levinson, who hails from a background with the City of Sydney and other politically focused communications work, Sydney (and no doubt other parts of Australia) will soon realise it has a new pool of talent thanks to the half million or so returning expats since March last year.

These are the ambitious people who typically form the brain drain, preferring to spread their wings somewhere bigger and brighter than home.

“What’s special about this moment is that Australia has performed so well through this period,” Levinson says.  “No-one really expected we would be such a shining light and in that sense it has given us a real window of opportunity to make a difference”.

The assembly of talent from the around the world is some of the best, he says, and these people have come home to a place where they feel safe and secure. And are ready for action.

“I’ve been hearing anecdotally very, very senior and experienced people – talented people who’ve been lost to the city and the country because it hasn’t provided the career path they want – are coming back, or are stuck here because of travel restrictions and suddenly they’re seeing Sydney in a different light as a place to raise a family and where they want to live and feel safe.”

Many like, Atlassian and Canva which are global companies headquartered in Sydney, will be focused on technology.

It’s a window of opportunity that businesses can make use of.

But the cities will need special reconstruction work to bring back confidence.

Despite the easing of restrictions there’s still rising vacancies that make the cities – Melbourne and Sydney in particular but also suburban CBDs –  feel hollowed out and threaten the benefits to be gained by dense clusters.

The Property Council’s office market report on Thursday confirmed strong drops in occupancy, pointing out, however, that the figures show committed leases and are not an indication of space actually occupied.

The Melbourne vacancy rate was up from 3.2 per cent this time last year to 8.2 per cent in January 2021. Sydney moved from 3.9 per cent to 8.6 per cent, Brisbane 12.7 to 13.6 per cent

Canberra is the only city showing a rise in occupancy with vacancy falling from 10.3 to 10.1 per cent.

The momentum to re-energise centres is growing and a focus of work by city councils often in collaboration with private consultancies.

In Sydney Astrolabe Group for instance, which consults to the NSW government, federal government and a string of local government agencies on various programs, is also working on reactivation ideas.

CEO Belinda Comninos says it’s recently been working with two interns from the UTS’ Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation.

“They have been developing a design charrette event to bring together placemaking experts with the community to explore options for underutilised or vacant spaces in the CBD through rapid ideation and prototyping.”

Interestingly, her team has already developed ways to counter the isolation some of her dozen or staff have been reporting. They’re holding “mobile office days” in locations such as hotels and clubs. That way they’re not only meeting their own need for connection but taking advantage of the Covid safe procedures and paper work provided by the clubs and hotels and at the same time of course helping to reactivate another moribund sector.

Among the issues the CBD reactivation team will be working on are:

  • How the CBD can become a better medium for connection, and the ways in which we can repurpose spaces
  • How to make the CBD an enticing destination
  • Ways to encourage people to safely return to the city for entertainment and leisure
  • Ways to transform the business district into an experience of place they cannot have anywhere else 
  • How workers, visitors, residents and businesses have adapted in response to COVID regulations, and whether these short-term actions can be improved upon to accelerate long-term transformations

Whatever the group comes up with is worth keeping an eye on, and could be useful for any centre whether city or suburban.

 But we’ll give the final word to Dr Kim Johnstone, the company’s associate director: 

“While we can expect to see changes there are many things that will stay the same. Most of the five million people who live in Melbourne and Sydney will stay there. Cities will still be used. Children will continue to need access to school. Our oldest people will continue to need care and support.”

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