Some hope that some of this new empty road space will never return to the private car and will be used to attract people to walk and cycle, but I really worry that that combination of emptier roads and the perception of mass transit as virus-supporting will lead one way: back to the car. Photo by Okan Younesi on Unsplash

Greetings from my bunker in Sydney’s Fairlight: the paradox of a pandemic is that it both unifies us globally while separating us nationally, and indeed individually.

Self-isolation is becoming a curiously shared experience, as is the shift to view my home less as a castle than as a 21st century sweatshop, complete with child labour – or “home-schooling” as it’s officially known – and parsimonious tidbits hurriedly shared across the family in the workplace while the overseers – Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams – check that we don’t waste too much work-time on such fripperies. Get me out of here – but where?

What’s also shared here and elsewhere, I suspect, is a new mistrust of globalism. Though in Australia that comes with the real challenge of what to do next with China – a much bigger issue for this country than the UK, clearly (where I’m from and where my sister is currently locked down for three months).

And although immigration has been, along with resource exports, the main Australian economic driver (and a source of cultural diversity, and good food), even here I would expect cross party moves to manage that process more than has been the case in the past.

As to how the crisis is being managed here, as in the UK, this comes in two forms: the health side and the economic side. On the former, good judgement and luck have played a part.

The political leadership nationally has made some good calls, though there have been some awkward edges between where the state and federal governments meet. Generally, we‘ve had the usual lock-downs and social isolation strategies together with a unifying of the private and public healthcare systems.

The luck is also what can often bring some negativities for Australia: the tyranny of distance from the rest of the world, the vast space between cities, the low density of cities and the climate. This crisis has also, helpfully, happened in the southern late summer and autumn, so not the usual flu season.

Economically, the Conservative government in England has abandoned ideology and adopted a “we’re all socialists now” mentality. As to whether, in either country, what were once neoliberals can actually run a “War Communist” economy well, or at all (can anyone over the medium to long term?), history will judge.

I do think, as in the UK, that ministers have had to make speedy life and death judgements based on advice from competing experts, media pressure and changing public moods that may not be best practice in terms of evidence-based policy-making, and may be closer to what I think is normal practice in government anyway: “policy-based evidence making”.

I personally tend to favour those who suggest that a proper analysis of the trade-offs between health strategies and economic strategies has not been done in any democracy, but that latter word suggests the answer to this: autocracies find such cost-benefit analyses a lot easier. Governments in media-sensitive democracies – apart from Sweden, I think ­­­– have decided that with COVID-19, the precautionary principle holds sway and that the economy is to be sacrificed for health.

I do worry that if that does work as a health strategy so much damage will have been done to the economies of both countries that the old medical joke will apply: “the operation was a brilliant success but unfortunately the patient died”. However, let history judge. I criticise no-one tasked with making these decisions here or in the UK. It’s hard at any time, and now terribly so.

As to life after death, I do sense a bit of glee from my friends on the progressive side of the aisle, though some anti-urbanists on the right also appear to be rubbing their hands together at the moment.

Also, those with a catastrophist cast of mind and a hunger for humanity to, kind of, begin again; and those who think this disaster brings opportunities to do new things: think that, as Marx said of the impact of capitalism in general, that “All that’s solid melts into the air”.

They see received business models, projects agreed before the War, ways of working, and ways of thinking are now subject to new tests of resilience and relevance.

But some go further and suggest that the world before COVID-19 and all its fallen ways, will not be coming back and shouldn’t. I sense principle wrapped up in opportunism in this based on a simplistic theory of change but also of a disregard for both economics and human nature.

Transport is clearly going to be even more of a contested area going forward. Just when mass transit advocates were winning the argument for the sustainability, inclusion and economic benefits of mass transit over the car, Uber came along, followed by automatic vehicles and electric vehicles.

And now this: a collapse in patronage already for mass transit followed by, without question, downward pressures on patronage when normal life is resumed from people fearing that packed buses and trains will harbour and spread viruses.

Some of my friends are jubilant that the roads are now empty and scheme – successfully I hope – for some of this road space to never return to the private car and to be used to attract people to walk and cycle. But I really worry that that combination of emptier roads and the perception of mass transit as virus-supporting will lead one way: back to the car.

Again, COVID-19 is raising fundamental questions of urban form. People now ask whether urban density is now good for people given proximity nurtures viruses.

It’s an inevitable question now. I like the answer that says people may get fewer diseases in low density and rural settings, but because of the lack of density and the resources that comes with it, people get better treatment and live longer in the cities.

So I don’t think that COVID-19 necessarily means the victory of suburbia or small towns over capital cities and their CBDs. Agglomeration will still bring – irreplaceably – strong economic benefits, but clearly the balance between CBDs and suburbs may shift or become indeed more balanced.

As to housing densities, it’s interesting how disease and existential threats have shaped the very form of cities before. It’s often forgotten that the Luftwaffe’s approach to town planning in East London led planners to deconcentrate the east End and create a large number of satellite new towns at the edge or outside of London and some other cities.

But they all suffered from the economic and social disadvantages of dispersal, low density and poor public transport connectivity.

Other COVID-19-related questions relate to office occupancy and co-working. Here I think we should not rush to judge that all the economic benefits of density and intense/collaborative uses of space have collapsed.

Even though I know office developers and landlords – like those in retail – have become among the gloomiest of my companions believing that certain co-working models will not return and that people will want to do more work from home, I do not think that means the end of high CBD rents or the disintegration of demand.

Some demand will go away and forever, for sure, though I do think that after this alienating experience of isolated home-working (it’s not at all fun, is it?) there will be an explosion of desire for sociability and urban delights – and of a real yearning to get back to the office and the city centre in which it sits.

But we will see change in how those offices are occupied and how home-working and office working can be more complementary: Zoom and Teams, sadly, are here to stay.

And all of the above does mean one big change: government and companies will be reviewing the resilience of their structures, governance, cultures, and business models. They will all be sifting out “business as usual” projects and processes from stuff that has indeed “melted in the air”.

So that definitely means that the whole thus-far shoddy process of business-case making for major infrastructure projects will have been tested to destruction – with a desire for new approaches to emerge out of the ashes of COVID-19.

Projects may have to actually be defined on evidence, transparently, in full dialogue with the community, what public, economic, social and indeed health benefits does project A deliver in comparison with project B – and whether those benefits will actually be delivered. Yes, COVID-19 will at least force us back to what should have always been the key infrastructure appraisal question for project bidders to answer: Does this project make this community stronger and this city better?

I end with one UK COVID-19 initiative that has impressed Australians and also raised questions about whether some planning processes might change after this experience. I refer to the inspirational process by which the National Health Service and the army collaborated to create a “COVID Field Hospital” for 4000 beds in about 10 days inside the Excel exhibition centre in East London.

Further, the local council – the London Borough of Newham – as the planning authority, received the application for this rather big change of use only on the 27th March: although I note the community had until 22 April to comment, the Council has clearly allowed the change to go ahead in the interim, with no community opposition. I add, the University of East London, close by, has offered its unoccupied student accommodation free of charge to Nightingale staff.

Fantastic effort, collaboration, innovation, flexibility. Necessity has indeed been the mother of invention in this case. Will she vanish after the COVID War? Will due planning process collapse or will we just learn to make it fitter for purpose in a world of urgent threats?

The latter, I hope though I see worrying signs of governments thinking that planning just means “burdens”, “restrictions” and “red tape” and thus poised to throw the baby out with the bathwater in a panic and under pressure.

The current market has seen a collapse in demand not a surfeit of restrictions: “reducing red tape” is displacement activity at best and support for anti social rent-seeking – which won’t restore demand anyway – at worst. Watch that one.


Dr Tim Williams is Arup’s cities leader for Australasia and chair of Open Cities. He was a special advisor to a number of ministers for urban affairs and housing in the UK’s Blair and Brown governments.


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