Corona, working from home and the 20 minute neighbourhood
Is the awakening of the neighbourhood as a result of the Corona crisis a return to the past or a sign of the future?
For years prior to the 1992 recession, the Melbourne City Council had strongly promoted an increase in the residential population of the CBD. Remember when virtually no one lived in the CBD and the Council was promoting the Melbourne 3000 program? History shows that it was not until a convergence of factors following the 1992 recession that inner city apartment development took off and led to a resurgence in inner city living that now characterises Central Melbourne and many other areas.
Could the Corona crisis do the same for Melbourne’s 20 Minute Neighbourhood concept?
Since the introduction of the lockdown in early March, the requirement to self-isolate at home and in particular to work from home if possible, local neighbourhoods have come to life.
Local people are out in the streets walking, cycling, exercising, talking and meeting each other. This has all happened whilst many local shops, with the exception of supermarkets and take-away shops, have been closed for business.
Could the concept of working from home on an ongoing basis breathe new life into the 20 Minute Neighbourhood concept? Could it help revitalise Melbourne’s local centres, which are likely to be very hard hit by ongoing economic consequences following the recovery from the health impacts of the virus?
As expressed in current planning policy, the 20 Minute Neighbourhood concept is not supposed to be about jobs and working locally. It is designed to be about access to neighbourhood level services and facilities. However, what the Corona crisis has done is demonstrate that local jobs are a critical element in a vibrant neighbourhood. Jobs in a local area, whether they are home based or other types of local jobs, keep people in a locality during the day. People are critical in generating the level of activity, vibrancy and community, and to patronage in local businesses that are required to make neighbourhood activity centres vibrant and viable.
Home based work coupled with flexible working hours has the potential to greatly reduce commuting hours per day. It has the opportunity to give people time during the day to do other things in the local neighbourhoods, such as taking kids to and from school, walking, cycling and exercising, doing shopping, catching up with friends or colleagues in their local centre. All of these things are community building and all are essential to the 20 Minute Neighbourhood concept.
The benefits to the wider city of the more local lifestyle over the past few months have been clear:
- Less traffic on the roads, less congestion and less pollution.
- Less crowding on public transport.
- Significantly shorter travel times around the city for those who still need to move around for work and business.
- A resurgence in a sense of belonging to a local community.
It is important to anticipate and respond to potential disadvantages of continued working from home on a longer-term basis:
- It will not be as effective in all locations and its success will depend on the socio-economic characteristics and the type of work in which the local population is involved. This varies throughout Melbourne.
- Social isolation and mental health issues.
- Housing design and available space for a home office.
Should the promotion of working from home be given more emphasis in future planning policies? Is it a remedy (or a partial remedy) to city-wide problems of congestion and exorbitant infrastructure spending to accommodate peak hour travel needs?
What can be done at the local level to support more people working from home:
- High speed reliable internet access.
- Housing design that provides work spaces.
- Increased emphasis on safe and convenient walking and cycle paths; attractive and accessible local parks; busy, lively and vibrant local neighbourhood centres.
- Flexible spaces in neighbourhood centres in which home based and other workers can meet and work, to supplement their home based work spaces. These might be part of cafes, local municipal libraries, or private or government provided shared working spaces and meeting hubs.
State and local government has undertaken considerable thought and investment in business incubators in the past, as vehicles to support and encourage new business ideas and start-ups. It may be possible to consider similar or aligned efforts to promote home based employment.
Has the Corona crisis provided a glimpse into a more local future or has it merely occasioned a reflection on a lost past?
With over 40 years in the planning industry, Hansen Partnership’s Managing Director David Barnes encourages us to think outside the square regarding urban planning issues with this series of Food for Thought articles.