Photo by Werner Sevenster on Unsplash

We may be nearing “peak city”. This shift undermines all of the place-based strategies that economic development organisations have been promoting for decades. It’s a topic David Levinson will be addressing at the Festival of Urbanism 13-26 November.

The Dot-Com boom and Y2K crisis compressed a decade of technological investment into a two-year period. As a bubble, it was naturally followed by a stock market crash, but the Internet is bigger and more important than before. Since Y2K we have seen the advent of smartphones (the Internet in our pocket), social media, Wikipedia, ride-hailing (mobility on demand in our pocket) and a major refactoring of many if not most businesses around the new information reality.

COVID-19 has initiated as profound a transformation, acculturating the population to videoconferencing and work from home, virtual conferences and webinars, distance learning, online shopping (for everything), remote medicine, Zoom weddings and funerals and many other activities that once would have been experienced in person.

This transformation did not begin from scratch, all of these changes had already begun, but they were accelerated by events.  The home has at least temporarily returned to its historic pre-urban role of being the restaurant, the workplace, the schoolhouse, the theatre — making it more crowded and more intense.

Eventually, like Y2K, COVID-19 will cease to be an issue and we will enter the “After Times”. The fear of others will dissipate but not disappear.  Its effects on society will linger. 

Many people who previously stood all day at a hot-desked, open plan, office in the CBD have discovered they like working at home at least some of the time, as long as they also don’t need to supervise children. 

Couple that with finding that 37 per cent of all jobs in the US can be done entirely at home, 39 per cent in Australia, a greater share of those in metro areas, and a greater share still in Central Business Districts.

Many more jobs can be engaged with at least part-time at home. Thus, many firms  have discovered they don’t need to pay for expensive CBD real estate. Soon governments and universities will discover the same.

Many shoppers and eaters like getting deliveries rather than going out, and distribution infrastructures have scaled up to enable this. Dark kitchens designing meals for delivery will ensure they are no longer mere allusions to tasty food. 

Many students find they like attending class from home, which may be China, and now they are able to.

It’s not that some of the people don’t miss some of the ways of the “Before Times” — commuting at least some times provides a spatial and mental separation between home and the workplace.

In a study we conducted during the Sydney lockdown (Aoustin 2020), almost everyone was traveling less, and respondents were asked how they experienced the decrease in time spent in transport. On a scale of 1 to 7, 51 per cent said they missed this time little or not at all, 17 per cent were indifferent, but 32 per cent did miss it. Travel to work does not need to take place at 8:00 am five days a week, 50 weeks a year, packed into a shiny metal box.

This prospective future no doubt would come as a disappointment to Urban Triumphalists, who insist the value of cities is due to economies of agglomeration resulting from face-to-face interaction, as well as organisations like the Property Council. While historically in-person contact has driven economies of agglomeration, and why be in cities but to be near other people, the question remains: Must it always be so?

Mega cities were largely non-existent in the pre-ndustrial Revolution period when the economies of agglomeration were often outweighed by the diseconomies.

Cities will not be abandoned quickly, transitions are long, but we may be nearing “peak city”. This shift undermines all of the place-based strategies that economic development organisations have been promoting for decades. 

Face-to-face encounters will remain important for a few sectors, those with high trust issues like politics, or requiring hands-on physical interactions, but for others it is clearly being abstracted away. The risk we as a civilisation face is that of the explore/exploit trade-off:  if the urban triumphalists are correct that new ideas emerge more from in-person interaction, while we can continue to exploit existing ideas, we will generate fewer of them and the rate of progress will slow. 

I am not convinced this is true, certainly not to the degree it once was. Perhaps more ideas can be generated from the vast increase of total interactions online, even if those interactions are intermediated electronically, than the serendipitous in-person encounters traditional place-based thinking privileges.

This is not necessarily Zoom meetings, certainly not group meetings, but may instead be real-time (or nearly so) text-based interactions, bulletin boards, messaging, Slack, Twitter, Miro, and the like.

The implications of these changes on physical places are several. 

If more is to be done at home for more of the day, the demand for more space per person at home will increase, and the demand for person space in offices will diminish.

While physical distancing requirements may remain at offices, giving those in the office building more space as well, it also drives up costs of offices, further inducing firms to increase their virtuality.

The demand for new office construction will be permanently reduced, and we may see buildings or sites retrofit for other purposes, perhaps residential, as they run through their lifecycle. The demand for housing in contrast will tend toward the larger, with in-home offices for every member of the household becoming standard for those who can afford it.

This of course drives houses to places where land is cheaper, the edge of the metropolitan sphere, or beyond, rather than the centre, as the commute to the centre, which may once have been daily, is now reduced to weekly.

The challenge will be to make good suburbs and desirable small towns, where people can still engage in meaningful out-of-home activity, while accommodating their demands for larger structures.

Daily travel changes are already visible: though vehicle miles traveled in the US are largely back to normal (with more rural and less urban travel), public transport levels are not. It will be a while before, if ever, public transport returns to the pre-virus normal, even in places like Sydney which were not nearly as severely hit as China, the US, and Europe.

Work-from-home, fear of exposure on public transport (and not just personal fear, official fear being promulgated by governments), and just a general economic downturn and unemployment are all factors to date.  

Substitutes like walking and biking (and especially the newly cost-effective e-biking) are likely to pick up some of the slack for those who continue to travel to work in the CBD, though more needs to be done to facilitate safe bicycling, in particular instituting a much larger network of separated and protected bike lanes.

Even auto travel will change though, while total vehicle travel may remain stable or drop only a small amount compared with the Before Times, the nature of that travel differs so it is less peaked. This implies less demand for new road infrastructure, as the usage of roads is more balanced across the day. 

The After Times are post-post industrial. The industrial districts that were fashionably converted to urban office precincts will now get reconverted, perhaps to residential, which the market will always demand – people have to live somewhere, even if they can work anywhere.

If we will indeed interact primarily intermediated by the Internet, we will have finally moved to the next stage of human development, that of spaceless places.

The flip side of spaceless places are placeless spaces. We will abandon spaces we no longer need. The CBD office building is the first target. New and expensive transport links to connect to the central city, or relieve peak congestion, will also be seen as white elephants.

David Levinson is Foundation Professor in Transport Engineering at the University of Sydney.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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