The continuing pandemic restrictions are an opportunity for Melburnians to create their own roadmap to something new, rather than reverting back to normal, when restrictions are eventually eased.
The extension of stage 4 lockdowns in Melbourne has led to a diversity of public and personal reactions from outrage, depression and gritted teeth, to relief and, for some, hope.
Many of us in regional and rural Victoria are thanking our lucky stars we don’t live in the city. We are keenly aware of the relocations, and desire of even more people, to flee to our more comfortable conditions. Comfortable not just because we are living under stage 3 rather than stage 4 restrictions, but because we have more access to nature and some meaningful control over our habitat compared with Melbourne residents.
That rural and regional Victoria could be more comfortable and secure than in the sprawling suburbs of Australia’s second global city, let alone the confines of the CBD and the residential spires that cluster around it, is a turnaround that can give rise to a smug schadenfreude rather than empathetic solidarity. However both these emotional responses could be replaced by anything from entrepreneurial opportunism to resentment at having so many city folk disturbing the peace, as city dwellers vote with their feet and head for regional centres, small towns and rural locales. Even relatively small numbers choosing to relocate out of Melbourne could create growing pains in many small, and even larger, communities. In desirable coastal communities, and inland ones like Daylesford and Castlemaine, the gentrification could intensify as the well-to-do push up real estate prices to even greater heights.
Relocation within Melbourne, from apartments accessible only by lifts and stairwells to suburban houses with garden and breathing space, is another response that many are likely to consider. The inner urban lifestyle of eating out, cultural events and workplace meetings has definitely lost some of it allure, and public transport may even inspire paranoia. While the Melbourne real estate market is likely to decline, if not collapse, once government money and the leniency on rent and mortgage repayments end, suburban prices could hold up relative to the likely cratering of the apartment market, which is already bloated from bubble economics for years if not decades. And those suburban prices might reflect genuine appreciation of gardens for growing food, keeping animals and for the kids to be able to play in quiet streets, rather than just another opportunity for knock-it-down-for-infill development of more apartments that no one wants to live in.
For so many living in the suburbs, the spell of commuting each day, mostly to crowded CBD workplaces, has been broken. The cold turkey shift to working from home has been hard for many, but commuting as an unquestioned assumption of urban, and even rural life, for the majority of workers and students is not returning. Whether workers like it or not, adoption of these new patterns may be driven by gains in productivity experienced by some businesses despite the chaos of rapid restructure, the consolidation of online identity and interaction, and the opportunity for employers to take advantage of residential infrastructure, space and amenity of workers’ homes, without the costs and responsibilities of managing workplaces.
As businesses cut back on rented workspaces, especially prestigious CBD offices, the likely culling of huge numbers of retail businesses, especially in catering and hospitality, are unlikely to be replaced. Entrepreneurs will not be keen to keep doors open to massively reduced day and night time crowds. While the pandemic may pass, the fear, or at least distaste, for crowding is likely to stay. With the immigration and overseas student spigot turned off, and unlikely to generate more than meagre flow when turned back on, Melbourne CBD is likely to seem very dead to those who revelled in the financial and cultural rewards of one of the world’s most liveable cities. Even if the collapse of city life is not as severe as that unfolding in New York, the chances of a return to normal seems less than that of a snowball in hell.
The real estate agents’ adage that it is all about location, location, location remains true; it is just that the perceived values of locations have all been overturned.
While the move to more desirable locations post-pandemic might not be an option for most, the question of how to live and with whom, is an existential one facing so many under household curfew in Melbourne. While many are currently chafing at the bit to escape their confinement and inevitable tension with partners, parents or housemates, others may recognise how much their household, family or otherwise has provided intimacy, refuge from public and workplace pandemic protocols, and an assurance of shared capacity to weather threats from whatever quarter. Strengthening relationships at home and kickstarting the household economy of self-provisioning and neighbourhood exchange, highlighted in RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future, is the priority for some, despite the absence of mainstream media attention on this creative response to the pandemic and its aftermath.
For some living alone there may be a superficial sense of security from the virus but the almost 100% dependence on telecommunications and just-in-time delivery to provide both their material and emotional needs is a huge vulnerability that the pandemic has exposed. The absence of casual and intimate connection to friends, family and partners has highlighted just how fragile the modern pattern of apparently autonomous urban living is for a future full of change and challenges. Household consolidation, typically in extended multigenerational households, has historically been the main mechanism by which ordinary folks cope with hard times. Anecdotal evidence suggests this has already been occurring during the pandemic, while data from the US shows it is accelerating a longer term trend since the 1980s. Just as the pattern of commuting for work and other needs might be fractured, the ideal of the ever youthful and upwardly mobile autonomous consumer barely tethered to a solo home base may have been transformed by the lockdown into a nightmare to be abandoned. Despite the challenges of sharing house, let alone the complexities of extended family relationships, it seems clear that the pandemic will be a wakeup call for many, especially previously free and easy young city dwellers.
Back in early 2018, when Melbourne was bursting at the seams with growing pains, I penned an opinion piece to contribute to the debate in the press about Melbourne having a choice between following the Los Angeles, New York or London models of development. In casting the RetroSuburbia strategy as the “Melbourne Model”, I pointed to the potential to avoid any of the proposed development models by simply consolidating our households in the existing underused residential housing stock, revitalising our suburbs in the process. Progressively converting much of the unnecessary commercial building stock to housing would also be part of this model.
The Age declined to publish my vision (presumably as far too left-field) and, likewise, the mainstream media debate about post-pandemic options remains stuck in the old grooves. Even visions of bold Green New Deals mostly revolve around accelerating the renewable energy roll out, electric cars and more public transport to city centres that are likely to be unused.
As I said in the Melbourne Model:
RetroSuburbia is based on the lived reality of a growing number of ordinary Australians who have been influenced by the permaculture concept, a vital emerging global movement, first taking root in the suburbs of Melbourne 40 years ago. The impact of permaculture, and UK spin off, The Transition Towns movement is at the progressive edge of communities building resilience in a climate changed world. Locally, Permablitz activism that continues to empower young people to hack their habitats for the better, has also spread around the world from Melbourne.
It is possible that the pandemic and resulting lockdown response could trigger a mass of behaviour change in Melbourne unlike anything we have seen before, restructuring personal and collective living arrangements in ways that might be better for the punters but bad news for corporations and governments still flogging the dead horse of Gross Domestic Product.
The potential to build a new economy from a base of revitalised household and community non-monetary economies is the good news that the media won’t be too happy to air. Let’s do it anyway, and spread the good news while so many Melburnians are pondering their future.