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Back to the drawing board?

By Ross Elliott - posted Wednesday, 27 May 2020

The global response to the impact of the Coronavirus seems consistent in at least one respect: everything we previously took for granted is now up for grabs. Long held truisms, established patterns of corporate and individual behaviour, doctrinal teachings, professional articles of faith – nothing is immune from Covid-19 induced change.

The immediate and long terms impacts are potentially going to reshape cities and the behaviours of the people who inhabit and work in them. Nothing seems untouched: from the nature of work and where it's conducted, to urban mobility, immigration and population growth, housing preferences, retail spending and personal consumption. A more comprehensive shake up could not have been imagined only 6 months ago.

Many Australian cities and regions adopted regional planning policies built on some common themes around the mid to late 1990s – the curb of rapid outward expansion, policies of urban consolidation and infrastructure strategies designed to support these principles. Regional plans have been reviewed and updated since then but the general principles haven't fundamentally changed. Then along came a virus, and it potentially changes everything. Persisting with the assumptions that underpin these regional plans, as if nothing has changed, now makes little sense. They need a root and branch rethink.


Central to many of these assumptions was a frenetic rate of population growth. In South East Queensland for example, the population was predicted to rise from 3.5 million in 2016 to 5.3 million by 2041 – a 50% increase in just 25 years. It took nearly 160 years to grow by 3.5 million but the next 2 million was forecast to come in 25 years. Melbourne and Sydney planned for similarly meteoric rates of growth. Those predicted rates of growth owe themselves entirely to Australia's international immigration policies, which until Covid were running hot. That tap is now turned firmly off, and according to many is unlikely to be opened anywhere near as wide again.

Even traditionally woke pro-immigration Labor Party spokepeople like Kristina Keneally are now calling for curbs to protect Australian workers. "The post-COVID-19 question we must ask now is this: when we restart our migration program, do we want migrants to return to Australia in the same numbers and in the same composition as before the crisis? Our answer should be no," she wrote in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald. Many Labor colleagues refuted her suggestion but it is clear that on both sides of politics, the idea of rapid immigration driving population growth is off the table for some time. As this underpinned many of the key assumptions and forecasts of regional plans, this aspect at least needs a completely fresh look at the implications.

That will also impact on assumptions around housing, deeply embedded in most regional plans; where it will be needed and what it will look. If patterns of settlement are going to change, and if housing preferences also change (as many seem to suggest) that will impact on everything from planning for schools, hospitals, and civil infrastructure. Demand for rural and semi-rural living could also change, as the attractions of 'splendid isolation' are not lost on people. The prospects for high density housing around high intensity transit nodes – transit-oriented development – is yet another dimension of the prevailing orthodoxy that Covid-19 could dramatically impact. Just shutting our eyes and pretending it won't is not good strategy.

Other regional planning assumptions may also now be redundant. The assumption that 'knowledge workers' would willingly crowd into highly dense inner-city workspaces, commuting via crowded mass transit, was a sort of 'Manhattan meets London' aspiration of some planners. The Planning Institute of Australia indicated as much when in 2018 it responded to an ABC News report warning of overcrowding in Sydney and Melbourne through excessive population growth by suggesting: "We want Tokyos, Parises, and New Yorks – and we can do that by planning well." Those once celebrated urban models are now looking less praise worthy, at least for the time being. (It's fair to question how many average Australians ever shared those ambitions in the first place). Very high-density mass transit dependence by cities like Manhattan will be watched closely – how will workers, commuters and companies react and what does this mean for Manhattan's future? Already there are multiple examples coming from Manhattan of corporations looking to decamp to more suburban or regional centres as a direct response to the perceived lasting impacts of Covid-19, accelerating a pre-Covid which saw millennials and businesses priced out. Regional planning schemes are all about the future and the future of Gotham - and cities like it - now looks quite different. It remains to be seen whether they will continue to aspirational city models for all but the most ardent urbanists.

The likely lasting effects of work from home are another consideration. This has gone from an interesting point of conjecture and discussion pre-Covid to a workday reality for many. So far, there seem to be both positives and negatives, depending on the person, the employer and the occupation. At this stage, significant proportions of those working from home may continue to do so by choice, or by edict (some employers taking advantage of the considerable cost savings). The city-wide impacts in the longer term are hard to gauge but they should be given some careful consideration for their impact on regional plans. Another reason for root and branch revision.

While some employers will support work from home options for some of the workforce, others may seek lower cost suburban collaboration hubs. Can the assumptions about suburban employment hubs embedded in existing regional plans (what little there is) any longer apply? Do existing zoning mandates and prescriptive tables of permitted uses adequately provide for the quick pivots on land use from, for example, retail to professional services to cottage industry? And when it comes to assumptions about industrial land uses, are the rapid rise of logistics and distribution, the advent of 'dark kitchens' or the acceleration of delivery systems to support internet retailing adequately catered for in regional plans which predate these changes? It's unlikely. The entire notion of industrial activity has changed markedly with more future needs around distribution hubs on very large sites near fast flowing transit corridors. Covid-19 has accelerated changes in industrial land uses – meaning more large format sites on urban fringes while older style industrial lands in inner or middle rings need a new life and future. Plans should reflect that new reailty.


Planning for regional growth, coordinating infrastructure delivery and maintaining quality of life is something that makes enormous sense. Clinging to plans which cataclysmic events have rendered redundant, does not.

I can think of no business who plans to use their pre-Covid business strategy and assumptions as the basis for moving forward in a post Covi-19 era. The same logic should apply to planning.

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This article was first published on The Pulse.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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