Forget the central business district

Central business districts were designed to be used by white, middle-class businessmen, 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. They were never really designed to include anyone else.

Those words were written the other week by Rob Stokes, the minister for cities in the Australian state of New South Wales.

My eyes widened as I read them in an opinion piece that the former environmental lawyer with a doctorate in planning law, wrote for my old newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ministers tend not to talk of city financial centres as white male enclaves, especially those from parties such as Stokes’s centre-right Liberal Party.

Nor do they generally say that central business districts are, as Stokes wrote, “a concept past their use-by date”, devised by “white, male, middle-class planners” in 20th century Chicago.

Stokes later told me he was referring to University of Chicago sociologist Ernest Burgess, whose ideas on CBDs — jargon for central business districts — influenced the planning of other new world cities.

“For Burgess, the central business district was the central concentric circle of the city where most of the tertiary work was done, almost entirely by white men, at the junction of the city’s infrastructure,” he said. “Other parts of the city reflected the work and roles of other classes and genders.”

Now that cities around the world are struggling to revive their pandemic-struck centres, policymakers like Stokes see an opening. They want to turbocharge efforts to turn CBDs into CSDs, or central social districts, places where all sorts of people meet to eat, talk and have fun, not just go to the office.

As Stokes points out, pandemics and other disasters have long fuelled urban change. The Great Plague and Great Fire of London led to some of the city’s first planning controls. Now, he says the Covid-19 pandemic will trigger more transformation.

I hope he’s right. Too many city business areas have long been blighted by skyscraper wind tunnels and soulless, car-clogged streets that lie empty on weekends and at nights as workers head to more cheering spots elsewhere.

They are emptier still after the recent rise in more flexible working patterns that shows little sign of fading any time soon. More than 60 per cent of executives at big businesses say they are investing in hybrid working and permanent remote work options, a Capgemini report on 2023 business investment strategies showed last week.

The question is, how many authorities are really ready to do what it takes to turn CBDs into CSDs?

It’s one thing to put on the odd festival to lure crowds into Covid-depleted streets, as some cities have done recently.

But that is a far cry from the knottier task of overhauling planning policies to allow more pedestrian-friendly streets. Or building better public transport. Or new parks. Or crucially, more residential homes in business districts.

The Australian city of Melbourne has been regularly ranked one of the world’s most liveable cities and the number of city centre homes has soared since the 1980s. But this followed years of government effort to streamline planning approvals and encourage residential development.

Likewise, Barcelona took years to pioneer its “superblocks” — pedestrian-friendly groups of city blocks closed to through traffic — that have captured the imaginations of urban planners worldwide.

For a lot of cities today, creating CSDs will at a minimum require pandemic city revamps to stay in place.

Stokes’s home city of Sydney is making a good start. A chunk of one of its busiest downtown streets has become a permanent pedestrian and outdoor eating area. Measures slashing the time it takes to approve outdoor dining from seven weeks to three days are staying put.

An inner suburban industrial site is set to become a park linked to the CBD by a harbourside boulevard. An old coal power station is being restored into what Stokes says could be “Sydney’s answer to Tate Modern”. Most impressively, a new harbour swimming spot just west of the city’s famous Harbour Bridge, within walking distance of a train station, just opened. Stokes was so pleased that on launch day two weeks ago, he jumped in, fully clothed.

If this is what the CBD of the future looks like, who is going to complain?

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