CBD: Central But Dead

The Emerald City aka Sydney lost its allure for office workers when the pandemic gave them a choice to work from home. They’ve happily voted with their bottoms by doing thusly en masse, and emptied the city somewhat. Now, with the pandemic abating, ‘business leaders’ are prognosticating on why those absent toilers should go to the office for their work well-being and to help keep the whole Central Business District thing humming.

The NSW Productivity Commissioner has a wonderful job moniker and apparently open brief, which allows him to make thought-bubble recommendations about any economic or indeed non-economic subjects, including how to revitalise the moribund CBD. Golden soil and wealth to toil for professional soothsayers and business boosters, with office space occupation at 52% of CBD capacity.

The incumbent PC Michael Achterstraat has impressed with his top two answers, as to why we want people back in the CBD. Firstly, to encourage ‘innovative productivity’, which he calls ‘water cooler capital”. Apparently innovation mainly bubbles up (oh yeah) while workers linger longer in office corridors drinking water. 

Secondly, and I quote: ‘we do rely heavily on international tourism, the people who come in from overseas, they need to have a vibrant city’. Oh sure, let’s bring in hordes of reluctant office workers on fully-charged public transport (read high covid exposure), so that busy CDB streets give our tourists the right ‘vibrant’ vibe at their destination of choice.

The Commissioner has plenty of other off-the-cuff ideas, but these headliners already depress me by their profound shallowness, and of course he throws in the perennial favourite of small business lobbyists: how about more footpath dining? How exciting and original, no doubt with a nod to Europe, our favourite cultural cringe reference.

Look, as self-styled UnProductive Commissar, I’ve got a different scenario for revitalising the CBD: let’s call it the Slow Sydney Vision. Or Strolling Sydney. Let’s redefine Business in CBD, with this massive opportunity to re-imagine the city.

Firstly, no peak hour commute, we just leave the happy office workers beavering away in their suburban homes, and find new ways of doing so-called human capital productivity gains. In fact, let’s stagger their two or three days a week commutes at different times to keep public transport nice. Even make it free, as we won’t need so many vehicles and carriages. 

Secondly, like the Commissioner, we would utilise existing assets. Like converting unused office space into affordable housing, including special low rental units for essential city workers. So that nurses, fire fighters and hospitality workers can live within walking and cycling distance from their workplaces. Creating a more normal society in the city, and those lovely tourists could then mingle with all sorts of locals.

Thirdly, we close more city streets to vehicular traffic and let pedestrians and cyclists share these CBD arteries with trams and escooters. The whole CBD buzz then becomes a model of slow, unfrantic, uncrowded and of course we fill up those emptier streets with gardens, hanging and horizontal, even food growing, street markets, etc.  

Acoustically, we would just do quiet and ban any form of muzak noise emanating from storefronts or street speakers Except of course, for some favourite Dylan, Morrison, Newman tracks vetted by the all-knowing Commissar. And lo and behold, maybe even the newfound tweet of birds.

OK, nuff said, you get the picture. Go Slow Sydney!

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