Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit cities hard.
In 2020 our media channels became filled with footage of abandoned business districts from Sydney to Paris and London. A deserted Times Square in New York. Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing reduced to a smattering of lonely-looking pedestrians. As lockdowns continued, conversations bubbled as to whether people would ever return to CBDs.
The actual outlook is far brighter, notwithstanding the virus’s unpredictability and terrible human toll. Mass vaccine programs are enabling the world’s leading cities to gradually reopen, even as they experience changes in demand for retail and commercial office space. In its disruption and acceleration of trends, the crisis has undoubtedly been a wake-up call for governments, city leaders and planners. And perhaps surprisingly for the doomsayers, there is also cause for great hope and optimism.
Over the last year, the Greater Sydney Commission has conducted global research with leading UK-based urban consultancy The Business of Cities to learn how 20 of the world’s great cities are repositioning and preparing for post-pandemic life. Without exception, all plan for vibrancy and growth to return.
But we are not returning to a pre-COVID state. These cities are also seeking creative answers to key questions:
- How to reactivate urban spaces and breathe new life into shuttered streets?
- How to rebalance economic activity between central and suburban CBDs, catering for more people’s newfound desire to work, shop and play locally?
- How do urban economies diversify to support innovation and new industries?
- And how can city planning embed community engagement to include all residents in a vision for the future and gain public consent for change?
Solving these challenges requires cities to switch modes from short-term crisis recovery to long-term planning. Already, several are pioneering innovative strategies in areas such as transport, housing and climate resilience, including a flexible, multi-purpose approach to land use and buildings. This is vital to connect people to services, amenities and employment, and ensure everyone can enjoy safe, healthy living environments. In addition, cities wishing to spread growth more evenly beyond central CBDs must also align with metropolitan and region-wide initiatives.
The Greater Sydney Commission’s vision for Sydney as three “30-minute cities” was ahead of its time in this respect. Cities will re-emerge at different tempos. Only the boldest are likely to make the post-pandemic era theirs.