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‘Generational catastrophe’: How COVID-19 could reshape Melbourne

“There will be less demand for high-rise living, with people troubled by higher densities and being located close to each other, sharing lifts and other communal facilities,” Mr Kusznirczuk writes in an opinion piece for The Sunday Age.

Mr Kusznirczuk is an adviser to the Victorian government and a former chief commissioner of the Victorian Building Authority.

“I do not think there will be a ‘business as usual’ post-COVID,” he says. “This is a generational catastrophe. We will learn from this pandemic and will create a new normal.”

He says the way planners approach their entire task needs to be imagined anew, as the pandemic reshapes society.

“All high-density developments will be closely considered in light of the coronavirus pandemic,” he says.

“Things like having a lot of people gathering in places like foyers and lifts will need to be reconsidered. People will place a higher value on suburban living as they will feel more safe and secure in the suburbs.”

The government’s planning blueprint, Plan Melbourne, aims to put medium- and high-density housing developments near services, jobs and public transport to reduce urban sprawl and create “walkable” communities.

Nine public housing towers were ordered into hard lockdown earlier this month due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Nine public housing towers were ordered into hard lockdown earlier this month due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Credit:Paul Jeffers

But Mr Kusznirczuk believes middle- and high-density developments such as Arden could be re-examined amid the pandemic.

When 23 COVID-19 cases were detected among nine public housing towers in North Melbourne and Kensington, authorities made a snap decision to subject more than 3000 residents to a hard lockdown.

The towers were seen as perfect COVID-19 conductors, with their narrow corridors, shared lifts and many “touch points” creating an infection nightmare.

“There are people living in large concentrations,” Australia’s acting Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, said. “These are vertical cruise ships.”

Reimagining Melbourne: Emeritus Professor Michael Buxton says high-rise buildings could be the first planning casualty of COVID-19.

Reimagining Melbourne: Emeritus Professor Michael Buxton says high-rise buildings could be the first planning casualty of COVID-19.Credit:Pat Scala

Prominent planning academic Michael Buxton believes the predominance of high-rise developments and suburban sprawl make Melbourne a particularly inflexible city in responding to the pandemic crisis.

“The high-rise model in Melbourne is predominantly driven by short-term residential accommodation, visitor accommodation, student accommodation and lots of young people coming into the city from the suburbs and country regions,” he said. “It’s a very unadaptable model.

“International student numbers have collapsed; no one knows when that model is going to recover.

“The factors driving the high-rise phenomenon are not going to keep growing over the next 20 to 30 years. If there’s no remedy to this virus crisis, the high-rise model is going to be the first to fail.

“So we’re building a city that is destined to fail in the medium term. I think we’ll be pulling a lot of high-rise towers down in the next 30 years.”

Planning Minister Richard Wynne.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne.Credit:Joe Armao

Planning Minister Richard Wynne believes it’s far too early to say whether the pandemic will drive greater vacancy rates in the city’s offices and high-rise residential towers.

“There’s still a very strong appetite for investment and opportunity,” he said.

Mr Wynne said the government’s 20-Minute Neighbourhoods policy – designed to encourage people to live, work and exercise within a 20-minute walking or cycling distance of home – would be increasingly important as the pandemic stretched on.

“Working remotely, clearly, is going to be part of the future of work,” he said. “Whether that’s on a full-time basis, or part-time is really going to be up to both the public and private sectors to consider to consider the implications of that, from a spatial sense, but also from a social sense, and in a mental health sense as well.”

City of Melbourne planning portfolio chairman Nicholas Reece said the “magnetic pull” of cities would remain after the pandemic passed, and the CBD would remain the “vibrant centre of metropolitan Melbourne”.

“History shows that cities do bounce back after pandemics and that’s because the fundamentals of cities mean that they are very attractive places for people to live,” Cr Reece said.

“So what’s desirable about high-rise towers will continue to be desirable. Once the pandemic passes the economic and environmental benefits of high-rise living will still be there.”

City of Melbourne councillor Nicholas Reece says it's easy to think it will be like this forever, but history tells us it won't.

City of Melbourne councillor Nicholas Reece says it’s easy to think it will be like this forever, but history tells us it won’t.Credit:Luis Ascui

Cr Reece said COVID-19 gave governments the opportunity to reimagine the city.

“What we don’t want to see is COVID-19 become an excuse to let urban sprawl rip, with people living in huge McMansions on even larger blocks. That would be the worst of all outcomes for Melbourne.

“Greater density and mixed use mid-rise development in major activity centres, along key rail and tram lines, and in the central city would allow Melbourne to double its population without urban sprawl and it would actually improve amenity, vibrancy and environmental footprint of the metropolitan area.”

Opposition planning spokesman Tim Smith said: “I do think there is going to be a genuine conversation about density, going forward”.

“One reason we’ve been spared a lot of the worst of COVID is because Australia has some of the least dense cities in the world.”

The community is now being asked about how they see the future of the Arden and Macaulay precincts. The response to the consultation will indicate how people perceive the effects of COVID-19 on future developments.

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