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Reports of Melbourne’s death have been greatly exaggerated

According to Kusznirczuk there will be less demand for high-rise living, public transport will face declining patronage, and suburban living and urban sprawl will surge as people fear being close to each other.

It is easy to understand why many Melburnians are thinking like this. We are all suffering the physical and mental impacts of extended social isolation. Job losses and business closure are causing immense human misery, while images of the CBD looking like a ghost town make people wonder if things will ever recover.

With the right support and some innovation Melbourne's retail centre can come back better.

With the right support and some innovation Melbourne’s retail centre can come back better.Credit:Paul Jeffers

But claims about the end of Melbourne as we know it need to be kept in perspective. Some areas will experience permanent change, but much of what we know of Melbourne will return, including the vibrant central city.

Whether it was Athens after the plague of 430BC, European capitals after the Black Plague of the 14th century, or Australian cities after the Spanish flu just over a century ago, the economic, social and cultural benefits of the metropolis have a strong magnetic pull that inevitably brings people back in ever greater numbers.

The outbreak of SARS in 2002 did not cause the decline of cities in Asia. In fact, cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen near the virus epicentre in southern China have gone on to record some of the fastest growth rates in human history.

On the transport front, the experience of cities that have suppressed COVID-19 suggests people come back to public transport very quickly.

In Auckland, public transport use was back to 70 per cent of pre COVID-19 levels within four days of restrictions being lifted. As of this week, public transport and traffic levels across New Zealand’s major cities are back to where they were before the pandemic, in some cities they are even higher. Meanwhile, use of the huge mass public transit systems of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou is almost back to pre COVID-19 levels.

Much of the Melbourne economy depends on immigration and international visitors. In 2019, net overseas migration to Australia was about 210,700; this year it is close to zero. The short-term impact of this fall is devastating for universities, tourism operators and the residential construction sector.

But there is good reason to think the immigration numbers will eventually bounce back stronger than ever. After all, the things that make Melbourne such an attractive place for so many people around the world are going to be even more appealing post-pandemic.

Even before COVID-19, the bricks and mortar retail sector was facing huge challenges with the rise of online shopping. The pandemic will tragically push many retailers to close. But the experience of visiting Melbourne’s retail strips and shopping centres is fantastic. With the right support and some innovation they can come back better.

Another potential city-shaping change is the degree to which working from home continues post-pandemic. The last few months have shown people enjoy the convenience of working remotely and employers have overcome concerns about productivity loss. But it has also proven that video conferences cannot replace the human connection and culture building that occurs in the physical workplace.

If work practices permanently shift then some office towers may be converted to residential, but under either scenario mid-rise and high-rise development will remain viable.

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In all of this, the central city will not die. The amenity and vibrancy of the city will continue to attract people with its extraordinary mix of commercial, sporting and cultural assets all accessible from an extensive transport network.

To be sure, COVID-19 is a one-in-a-hundred-year crisis and the recovery challenge for the city is gargantuan. In this context the public debate and contribution of Bill Kusznirczuk is very welcome; he is right to argue that the crisis presents a moment for bold decision making. But as we plan for the recovery we should be optimistic and confident. The fundamentals of Melbourne are second to none, and if we back ourselves then we can come back even better.

Nicholas Reece is a principal fellow at the University of Melbourne and a councillor at the City of Melbourne.

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