Amid the pandemic chaos there is no denying several positives have sprouted from the mire - namely a stronger sense of community and common purpose. In coming years, another could be more convenient lifestyles for us all.

Urban analysts and strategists are heralding a new era of localisation that will see working, shopping and recreating shifted closer to home, minimising lengthy life-sapping (and now thanks to COVID-19, possibly risky) commutes by public transport and maximising major commercial and residential development in key metropolitan areas.

While major urban infrastructure and development projects are already underway in most Australian capital cities, a COVID-19-driven societal shift could push these to be even bigger and more significant than previously envisioned. Early signs have emerged last week’s declaration by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey that some employees can work from home forever if they choose, a move followed today by another Dorsey-owned company, payment software developer Square. Meanwhile Google and Facebook, also based in San Francisco’s Bay area, have told employees they can work from home for the rest of the year. In Sydney this week as people started filtering back to workplaces, roads were busy reflecting University of Sydney research that found 80 per cent of people were concerned about hygiene on public transport.

Generation ‘covillenial’

But the principal driver of any major shift in years to come will emanate from a generation coined the ‘covillenials’, according to leading urban strategist James Tuma. Born between 1996 and 2016 and currently aged from four to 24 years, this particular generation has been impacted more than any other by critical world events from the war on terror to the global financial crisis and now “significant pandemic shock” – all of which will shape the covillenial value system far differently to today’s generations of workers.

One outcome will be a desire for more community-based living and working which – most importantly – is close to home. In an interview on online finance channel ausbiz, Mr Tuma, group director of Urbis, outlined modelling to forecast the possible influence covillenials could exert on social and urban transformation. Like generations before them, when faced with threats to lifestyles and economic prosperity “anything that can be done to increase productivity” will be critical as covillenials seek to maintain their quality of life and more specifically enjoy the cities in which they live, Mr Tuma said.

The “flipside effect” will give local, neighbourhood and urban centres a boost. “We’re predicting an 8 per cent uplift in revenue for high street retailers, for example, and that will put additional pressure on those local centres to provide more accommodation, more density, more apartments and more mixed use developments all of which are positive things in relation to stimulating the economy, Mr Tuma said.

This will also maintain other positive aspects to emerge from the pandemic – a strong sense of community and common purpose. “So in terms of how a city might function in Australia in the future, we’re not expecting that CBDs will no longer be the major source of productivity and activity and cultural events, but that there will be a rise and rise we believe of inner ring neighbourhoood centres. These will become increasingly not just places for convenience and for high street retail but also places of work and places of community experience.”

Not all retail and urban centres regional or otherwise will come out in front Mr Tuma observed. Lockdowns and social isolation periods during which people only had limited time outside magnified this projection, he said, making it clear that centres with “a really high amenity co-efficient” will be better positioned than others to succeed economically. 

“This played out during the isolation period - those places that have excellent bike and cycling infrastructure great parks waterfronts, high levels of amenity, have tended to be much busier and perform better,” Mr Tuma said. “We think that is actually a very clear trend that will continue – and so the winners in relation to this decentralisation are likely to be those centres that have the highest level of amenity.”

Flexibility is key

Urban Taskforce CEO Tom Forrest welcomed Mr Tuma’s observations saying they manifested the “live work play in one building half hour from home” concept that has underpinned metropolitan outlooks since the early 1990s. And while praising recent moves by the NSW government to accelerate approvals of numerous major projects since COVID-19, enabling the changes forecast in the Urbis model will requires a truly flexible approach to planning – one that embraces multi-use zoning and the ability to respond to the kind of economic shocks seen recently such as bushfires and the global pandemic.

“What we have seen in the last three months is that things change very quickly,” Mr Forrest said. “This means we need a planning system that is able to move just as quickly – fast enough to cope with such events. We want the planning system to be flexible in order to deal with changing economic and societal circumstances that are happening right now and shaping the way people want to live.”