Forget the central business district

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

These words were written last week by Rob Stokes, Minister for Cities in the Australian state of New South Wales.

My eyes widened as I read them in an article written by a former environmental lawyer with a PhD in planning law for my old newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ministers do not talk about the city’s financial centers as enclaves of white men, especially those from parties like Stokes’ centre-right Liberal Party.

Nor do they generally say that central business districts are, as Stokes wrote, “an obsolete concept,” conceived by “white, male, middle-class planners” in 20th-century Chicago.

Stokes later told me he was referring to the University of Chicago sociologist Ernest Burgess, whose ideas about CBDs—slang 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 tertiary jobs were performed, almost entirely by white men, at the intersection of the city’s infrastructure,” he said. “Other parts of the city reflected the work and roles of other classes and sexes.”

Now, as cities around the world struggle to revive their pandemic-stricken downtowns, policymakers like Stokes see a start. They want to boost efforts to turn CBDs into CSDs, or central social districts, places where all kinds of people come together to eat, talk and be entertained, not just go to the office.

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

I hope he’s right. Too many of the city’s business districts have long been blighted by high-rise wind tunnels and soulless car-clogged streets that gape empty on weekends and nights as workers go to other cheering spots.

They are even emptier after the recent rise in more flexible work patterns that show little sign of going away anytime soon. More than 60 percent of executives at large companies say they are investing in hybrid and full-time telecommuting options, according to Capgemini’s 2023 Business Investment Strategies report last week.

The question is how many authorities are really willing to do what it takes to turn CBD into CSD?

It’s one thing to organize a quirky festival to draw crowds to the Covid-depleted streets, as some cities have done recently.

But it is a far cry from the more convoluted task of rethinking planning policies to enable more pedestrian-friendly streets. Or building better public transport. Or new parks. Or most importantly, more residential houses in business districts.

The Australian city of Melbourne is regularly ranked as one of the most affordable cities in the world, and the number of houses in the city center has soared since the 1980s. But it follows years of government efforts to streamline the granting of planning permission and boost housing development.

Likewise, it took Barcelona years to introduce its “superblocks” — groups of pedestrian-friendly city blocks closed to traffic — that have captured the imagination of urban planners around the world.

For many cities today, the creation of CSDs will require minimal urban redevelopment during the pandemic to stay in place.

Stokes’ hometown of Sydney is off to a good start. Part of one of its busiest downtown streets has become a permanent pedestrian zone and outdoor dining area. Measures reducing the time required for outdoor dining approval from seven weeks to three days remain in place.

An industrial site within the suburb should become a park connected to the CBD by a harbor boulevard. An old coal-fired power station is being renovated into what Stokes says could be “Sydney’s answer to the Tate Modern”. Most impressively, a new harborside swimming spot has just opened to the west of the city’s famous Harbor Bridge, within walking distance of the train station. 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’s going to protest?

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