Perhaps, then, the focus can shift from dragging office workers back into town – what some call the “sandwich economy” – and onto maximising the city’s cultural drawcards.
As urban strategist Steven Burgess recently told the ABC, there is now an opportunity to reimagine Melbourne’s CBD as “less business-focused … but more a central activity centre where you live, you work, and you play”; to think of it as a place “not just for bowing over a desk – it’s for meeting people, it’s for going to lunch, it’s going to the pub, going to the theatre”.
Some of this may well happen organically. Vacant shops should mean lower rents, at least temporarily, which could attract independent and creative businesses, as retail data suggests has already been happening in the UK.
But it wouldn’t hurt to prime the pump, either. The city council’s dining voucher scheme, currently offering diners 25 per cent off their bill when they spend $40 or more between Monday and Thursday, is just one example of what’s possible.
In New York, the Museum of Modern Art is offering targeted windows of free admission; the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers half-price cocktails and free live music, and there are two-for-one deals on most Broadway tickets.
NYC Mayor Eric Adams, meanwhile, has pledged to beautify his city, adding more benches, bike racks, planters and other amenities, telling America’s ABC news: “We can’t stumble into post-COVID. We must start to think about the redefinition of what our city is going to look like.”
For us, it could be fruitful to look back to the 1990s, when the City of Melbourne’s Postcode 3000 initiative sought to make the CBD – then a pretty grim prospect out of hours – an attractive place to actually live in.
Today, many more people call the city home, but life there is still challenging for families. Investing in childcare, schools and clinics and planning scheme amendments that mandate affordable, family-sized apartments in new developments could continue the good work that Postcode 3000 began.
Likewise, this is an opportunity to revisit the Docklands experiment: could it yet be transformed from a dormitory and office park into a vibrant suburb in its own right?