If you caught the ABC’s Four Corners episode on Monday night about the dire state of our economy, you’d have seen the eerie shots of near-empty streets that were once the busiest in the country.

It’s no surprise that Melbourne’s CBD is still deserted but new data from the Property Council of Australia shows that almost all our city centres are still operating well below capacity.

The return to the office has been slow, even in the less-affected states and territories. In Sydney, occupancy in the CBD was at 35 per cent (up from 30 per cent the previous month, but anecdotally it’s much lower). Canberra’s office space remains slightly less than 50 per cent full, while Brisbane’s occupancy has increased from 45 per cent to 52 per cent.

Things are looking better in Perth, which rose from 55 per cent to 63 per cent, and Adelaide, where the occupancy rate increased to 67 per cent from 61 per cent.

Darwin and Hobart CBDs are looking healthier still, at 70 and 78 per cent occupancy respectively.

While it’s great that the remote working revolution is boosting our suburbs and regions, what does that mean for our CBDs? Should our offices be abandoned, along with all the ancillary businesses that support office workers such as cafes and dry cleaners?

The reality is that a considerable chunk of office space is likely to remain empty, with recent analysis from global workplace experts Unispace showing that people will return to the office following the worst of pandemic but 10-30 per cent of office space will remain unoccupied.

There’s already signs that smaller floorplates and flexible office space will be in demand as companies look to downsize.

The expectation is that this will leave a whole lot of office buildings empty, most likely the B and C grade stock that can’t easily be retrofitted with Covid-safe features such as touchless doors and sanitary fixtures. So, can these buildings be rejigged for another use?

Already, ideas to safely revive and adapt our ailing CBDs are flowing thick and fast.

According to Gabriel Metcalf, CEO of the Committee for Sydney, cities around the world are grappling with the question of how revive CBDs.

“There are a number of policy options, but it will take time for CBDs to get back to anywhere near their previous normality,” he says.

Metcalf says cities can do practical things like making face masks mandatory on public transport and encouraging the use of outdoor space for things like outdoor dining.

“And we can encourage more active transport into the city, particularly cycling and walking.”

Melbourne might be hurting but it has a strong recovery plan in the wings

Melbourne has coped it the worst with its second round of lockdowns and to match, it probably has the most ambitious post-recovery plans for its CBD.

The city has plans to have its citizens eating al fresco this summer, with the City of Melbourne and the Victorian government offering free outdoor dining permits and grants of up to $10,000 to help hospitality business expand onto footpaths, on-street car parking space and some laneways and streets.

“It’s important that the outdoor dining spaces are high quality and are inviting. To achieve this, we will support businesses to install bollards, planters and barriers,” City of Melbourne chief executive officer Justin Hanney said.

“Businesses will be responsible for furniture such as chairs and tables and fast grants are available to assist cash-strapped traders.”

Aside from one charming food critic who was unimpressed with the outdoor dining idea, Hanney expects the outdoor dining to be “so popular with patrons this summer that it will become a permanent feature of our city for generations to come.”

The $30 million that will go towards outdoor dining is a central plank of the state and city government’s $100 million Melbourne City Recovery Fund to reactivate the central city.

The plan also includes $30 million for COVID safe events and cultural activities and $40 million for infrastructure, including bike lanes and expanded sidewalks.

“We want to deliver live performances, art installations and other pop-up activities to bring life back to the city over spring and the vital Christmas period,” Lord Mayor Sally Capp said.

Committee for Melbourne came out strongly this week calling for better governance and collaboration, which was key to Melbourne’s recovery in the 1980s.

“Melbourne’s recovery is in our hands. Melbourne has the human, industry and intellectual resources to shape our road to recovery,” Martine Letts, CEO Committee for Melbourne said.

The group is also calling for an “aggressive Melbourne headquarters strategy” in sectors it already excels in such as education, biotech and healthcare, financial services, digital, events, arts and culture.

It would also like to see a focus on innovation and advanced manufacturing “to get Melbourne going again” and major urban infrastructure projects to support longer term recovery, such as a train to the airport. 

Brisbane looking to utilise empty spaces and new bike paths

Brisbane City Council Greens councillor Jonathan Sri says it would be good to see abandoned office space repurposed for low cost residential housing [something we’re told is not always easy] and for use by industries that depend on people working closely together, such as performing artists and musicians.

“There are lots of creative professionals who would love cheap space in the city but can’t afford it,” Sri told The Fifth Estate.

The problem is that the property market relies on investment so there’s not much incentive to drop the rent for prospective tenants. That’s why Sri would like to see a vacancy levy to discourage property investors from leaving these spaces empty.

He says there are plenty of small businesses and entrepreneurs out there but the space is just too expensive, which leaves shops and office space sitting empty.

Sri is imagining a more creative, innovative Brisbane CBD occupied by more artists, musicians and startups that need proximity to work. 

“It could be a creative renaissance, but the policy settings aren’t quite there.”

Sri expects the rest of the workforce to spend more time working remotely to avoid a long commute, which will mean these suburbs and neighbourhoods will need more places to meet and congregate that aren’t people’s home.

Ideally, underutilised streets would be turned into pocket parks and libraries repurposed into coworking spaces in neighbourhoods lacking spaces to safely meet and gather. 

Sri’s home town has been less affected by Covid than some of Australia’s other major cities but it’s still made some changes to keep people living in the city safe.

Although the council has not opted for pop-up bike lanes to help people move around the city without overcrowding buses, trains and roads, it did announce a handful of permanent or semi-permanent bike lanes.

As we might expect these days, the modest bikelane network has already attracted plenty of controversy from carparking enthusiasts, but according to public and active transport committee chairman Ryan Murphy, the “time is right to make some of the tough decisions that need to be made to encourage a mode shift to active transport in Brisbane”.

Sri says that while it’s a positive change, compared to other cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane has been pretty slow and unambitious in terms of adapting its transport network.

“There’s a real opportunity here to reduce reliance on cars and create more spec for active transport but unfortunately they haven’t been rolling out bike lanes at the scale of other cities.”

One of the biggest changes in Brisbane has been the explosion in urban farming due to food security concerns. This has seen a spike in verge gardens and community gardens that Sri expects to endure as we enter a recession.

“People will value cheap, accessible fresh food.”

Beyond pop-up and towards permanence

Founder of the Canberra-based Urban Synergies Group, Gregor Mews, told The Fifth Estate that many cities around the world are taking a proactive role to reclaim their cities and permanently, such as Berlin, Paris and New York.

He says cities in the southern hemisphere, including in Australia, haven’t been so good at making lasting changes that make the city more resilient to pandemics and other crises. 

The founder of the independent “think and do tank”, which is dedicated to improving urban conditions through evidence-based and human-centred design, says that the pandemic prompted rapid changes to our cities that made them more human centric, such as closed or speed-reduced streets so that children could play safely.

“But we’re reverting back to what we had before – people are becoming busier, the ‘hurry virus’ is back.”

Mews has moved to Brisbane for work and says that people were having socially distanced “pop-up” concerts and picnics on their front lawns. He says that for these sorts of spontaneous grassroots events to keep happening beyond the lockdown period, the regulatory framework needs to become more accommodating.

He says we live in a very risk averse culture, which is understandable given the times we’re in, but if you disclose the Covid risk clearly then individual can take ownership and make their own decision about whether to attend a neighbourhood event or not. 

Mews, who is an advocate for “lovability” as opposed to “liveability” in urban planning, says placemaking techniques like popup events are great but just “one part of the goodie pack”. He says these things also come with a sense of novelty – “something cheap and temporary” – and that it’s also important to modify everyday habits to create human centric, sustainable urban environments.

“What Covid has done has emphasised systemic issues in the cities, with neighbourhoods that had access to good green space and social capital far more resilient to the pandemic compared to those with no access to green spaces and places where people did not know their neighbours,” he says.

This means designing cities from the bottom up and with meaningful consultation and collaboration to ensure all inhabitants, not just the well-off, can live healthy lives and experience interconnection with others.

Digital local businesses are resilient businesses

Having a digital presence is one way for CBD businesses to become more resilient in these times according to new data from urban planning data analytics company Neighbourlytics.

The geo-tagged lifestyle and behaviour data (social media “likes”, reviews and so on) revealed how people in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane CBDs had been using the different spaces.

The data showed the importance of having a digital presence to keep people engaged throughout lockdowns, with the most resilient creative businesses adapting with virtual art shows and live online gigs. 

Lucinda Hartley, co-founder and CGO at Neighbourlytics, says that the massive digital transformation – with everything from dry cleaners to local coffee stores now offerings services online – will change how we interact with our neighbourhoods long after the coronavirus threat passes.

She thinks it will likely change the game for urban design that’s typically focused on activating places to encourage people to “spend and stay” through carefully considered tenancies, branding and other tools for creating an atmosphere.

In a fully digitally transformed world, Hartley suspects people will still want to go to places for experiences but will need to feel more personally connected to these places rather than “stuff just going on.”

We’re looking at a vastly different world and the reality is we’ll need all the creative juices we can to reincarnate our city centres so that they come back better, greener and more equitable than before.

Put your mojo caps on.