By Sam Allert, Reckon CEO.

I was recently lucky enough to visit Europe for a family holiday as well as the United States for a couple of work trips. What I brought back from those experiences was how pumping their CBDs were, for workers and tourists alike. There was an electrifying energy in many cities I visited. You could really feel the power of it.

It got me thinking about our own cities here in Australia and what we can do as employers, businesses, and individuals to contribute to their vibrancy and capture that same energy.

The thought that kept coming to mind was – People make cities, not buildings.

If our people aren’t there, what do we have? I believe Australia is the best country in the world – each city has its own unique strengths, and as a whole, we really shine as a nation.

The death of the CBD?

It’s not a shocking observation to say that Australia’s central business districts and city hearts have taken a serious hit over the last few years. The pandemic of course sits at the centre of this phenomenon.

Initially, the desertion of our city spaces was essentially decreed by government health orders. Restrictions on in-office work and general transit varied between the states but held the same intent – keep people safe by reducing movement of people and putting a stop to workers filling up offices and public transport.

This necessity to attempt to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 had a revolutionary effect on office-based work. As businesses and their employees became more comfortable and adept at working remotely, a long-heralded shift occurred – suddenly we all realised how productively we could all work from home.

Many companies have remained almost entirely remote, others have begun mandating a return to the office, and many more yet (Reckon included) are embracing hybrid models with a degree of in-office days, blended with remote work.

While larger office-based companies have found themselves largely capable of implementing remote or hybrid work, the question remains – at what cost? Can we increase in-office capacity to both conserve our work/life balances and contribute to the wealth and health of our city’s unique cultural fabric?

What happens when we reduce foot traffic in our cities?

The costs of such a desertion of our city spaces are largely shouldered by our small business community. For decades, if not centuries, our thriving cities were an ample host for an abundance of small businesses.

Many of these businesses revolve around the accumulation of city workers in a restricted space. With so many people occupying office buildings in a centralised location, businesses like cafes and restaurants, clothing, hairdressers, and various retail and service stores, were able to thrive.

When foot traffic becomes severely reduced, the ability of these businesses to continue to trade becomes heavily diminished.

What comes next is not only a devastation of our small business community and livelihoods, but a shuttering of events, social activities, and services available to the people. As that snowballs, we run the risk of seeing deserted city spaces and with it, a lack of reason to visit.

The matter of a city’s soul

It’s more than just a concern for small businesses. What about the soul of our cities? With thriving businesses, availability of services, and strong foot traffic, comes culture and energy.

When people clock off and visit bars and restaurants with their friends and colleagues, a city’s culture can be defined and cultivated. Art spaces, galleries, shows, concerts, live music – it all comes about when there’s enough people in the vicinity who can choose to attend at a moment’s notice.

When these artistic, culinary, and cultural activities require people to make concerted effort to travel to, there will be a diminishment in attendance that could spell trouble for such activities.

What can be done to preserve and enhance the vibrancy of our city centres?

While the ability to work remotely has no doubt been a boon for many employees, enhancing work/life balance and granting greater freedom, there’s a downside to the desertion of our CBDs. Not only does the culture at large suffer, so too does work culture and the ability to form stronger in-person social connections.

I know we can work productively from home now, but our cities inevitably suffer alongside this decision. One day a week in the office is not the same as three or four days a week in the office. That’s a huge threefold or fourfold difference in knock-on effects.

I personally want to see our city centres, CBDs and workplaces thrive again, and with some effort and engagement, we can surely help protect and enhance our city’s souls. Hybrid working and worker incentives sit at the heart of it.

If your workplace can entice people back to the office, even just part-time, this will represent a huge boost to our social lives and culture, while also protecting our small business owners and pumping much-needed cash into the economy.

Lunches, social activities, health, wellness activities and nights out on the town can all be deployed to support your city while gaining the undoubtable benefits of an enhanced team culture and the exchange of ideas.

It also comes down to the employees themselves and the urge of the individual to see their cities thrive.

The recovery has begun…

Luckily, we’re already seeing a bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. Australia’s capitals have seen a resurgence in foot traffic over the last year or so, primarily driven by non-workers.

In Sydney, we’re seeing renewed investment in outdoor dining, arts, and cultural events like Vivid.

In Adelaide foot traffic for the 2022/23 festive period boomed and initiatives like the Fringe Festival are bringing in residents and visitors.

In Melbourne, the nighttime economy is back, despite lower levels of daytime traffic.

With promising signs of recovery, it’s up to us all to protect and contribute to the souls of our cities. We all lose when the vibrancy of our city centres are dimmed.

Sam Allert, Reckon CEO