Mike Day, a partner at planning and design practice Hatch RobertsDay, believes CBD workplaces may never see the pre-pandemic occupancy levels thanks to the new hybrid working model adopted by several companies.
While the recent easing of restrictions on transport and in workplaces has seen some of the workers return to CBDs, councils should begin planning other approaches to bring life back into these areas, Day said.
“Not all CBD workers will return five days a week. Attracting people into our cities will require planners and councils to reconceptualise the purpose and function of CBDs. Consider many of our inner-city areas: they are thriving because they are a good mix of residential dwellings, small-business workplaces, entertainment and food venues. It’s prudent for planners to bring these elements into our centralities to ensure they are inviting settings for people to work, live and play, with meaningful social interaction.”
New CBD office occupancy figures reveal 63 percent occupancy in Brisbane, 50 percent in Sydney, and 35 per cent in Melbourne. Additionally, employees may also be reluctant to discard home-based work completely: a survey late last year revealed 58 percent of workers expect to work from home 8 or more days each month.
“Employers of small-to-medium businesses tend to ensure they live close to work, but employees don’t necessarily have that luxury and many would rather avoid the commute. Our focus should be on injecting more energy and vibrancy into CBDs so that people will enjoy travelling into them, and other groups would have a reason to visit and enjoy the area outside of work.
“Our CBDs already have elements of good neighbourhood design: they have extensive transit networks and are compact, mixed use and walkable. However, we must get the balance of the neighbourhood feel right. By understanding what people cherished during the pandemic when they remained in their local neighbourhoods is a good starting point.”
Day reveals six solutions councils and developers could consider to attract foot traffic and bring vibrancy back into Australian CBDs:
1. Turn vacant lots into temporary green spaces.
Natural, green surroundings have a positive impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. While CBDs do lack vacant spaces to create permanent parks, there is an opportunity for developers to temporarily activate sites awaiting redevelopment into green spaces such as pocket parks.
2. Fast-track council processes for outdoor dining approvals.
According to Day, outdoor dining will give hospitality, entertainment, arts, cultural businesses and their surrounding areas more character and will create ‘eat streets’ that will attract patrons. One major challenge faced by businesses when taking up this vibrant dining option is the lengthy council approval process. More States could follow the NSW Government’s lead, which, with the City of Sydney, is trialling a faster approval process for outdoor dining applications. The Victorian Government and City of Melbourne are also fast-tracking permits for businesses wanting to extend their trading and expand onto footpaths and on-street car parking.
3. Incorporate separate and wider walking and cycling pathways through the city.
Social distancing rules on public transport over the past year have motivated people to walk and cycle in their local neighbourhoods. City councils could widen and multiply walking and cycling pathways with aesthetic streetscapes to make commutes safer and more enjoyable. These would attract more visitors to experience city parklands and CBDs differently. Day suggests that Australia could follow London’s plan to extend footpaths, restrict driving on shopping streets, and add more cycle lanes as well as consider Paris’ development of 650km of cycleways.
4. Increase residential dwellings in CBDs.
The dwindling occupancy in workplaces has created several vacant office spaces, which present an opportunity to increase residential accommodation in CBD areas by repurposing these offices into apartments and hotels.
“The more people living in our CBDs, the better. We should be capitalising on their strong existing transit network and walkability to minimise the proportion of workers commuting. For too long, we have separated city uses,” Day explained.
He added that councils and planners could be more flexible with mixed use development proposals to increase the proportion of combined residential and commercial buildings, which may require existing planning laws to be modified for creative outcomes.
5. Temporarily close roads to activate public spaces.
A better part of the workforce is splitting their working hours between office and home. This means employees need an incentive to commute into the CBD. Councils could temporarily close semi-busy roads – such as Flinders St in Melbourne – to regularly hold pop-up street events such as street food markets. Such events will not only create a business opportunity for hospitality venues but also provide a reason for workers to plan their visits into the CBD.
6. Engage the community to understand their needs and preferences.
As an ardent advocate of community engagement to capture feedback on project ideas, Day suggests that councils should engage with business owners and CBD employees to understand their expectations about bringing change to city centres. Getting ongoing community input throughout the process can lead to more successful and accepted projects.
 Property Council of Australia, March 2021, https://www.propertycouncil.com.au/Web/Content/Media_Release/NSW/2021/Half_of_the_Sydney_workforce_are_now_back_in_their_CBD_offices.aspx
 Cisco Webex, October 2020: The Rise of the Hybrid Workplace: A Global Survey of Executives, Employee Experience Experts, and Knowledge Workers, cisco.com/c/dam/en/us/products/collateral/collaboration-endpoints/global-workforce-survey.pdf?ccid=cc001191&oid=anrco023191
Image: The Strand Arcade Sydney. https://concreteplayground.com/sydney/best-of/sydney-cbd-shopping-list