Melburnians love getting together. The strong desire to gather and enjoy both simple pleasures and grand events is one of the magical, defining features of our city.
Translating this behaviour into economic terms, the city’s gross local product reached $100 billion per annum, last year. The data behind that remarkable figure reveals three things we love doing on a day out: shopping at niche stores, enjoying distinctive dining experiences that reflect our multiculturalism, and entertaining ourselves with sport, art, theatre, markets and festivals.
Melbourne council is eager to get shoppers back into the city.Credit:Chris Hopkins
The collective energy of our city also feeds into our buzzing, modern industries: a first-class university sector (our biggest export), a world-renowned bio-tech precinct and our sophisticated financial and professional services sector.
For a city that thrives on getting together, 2020 has not been our year.
My heart breaks to see empty city streets. From almost a million people a day pulsing through Melbourne’s centre, the pedestrian count dropped by 87 per cent in April to just a few thousand people. Working from home, remote learning, tourists gone, shops shut, cafes closed, jobs lost. Suddenly, our liveable, loveable, luminous city is unrecognisable.
Despite many unknowns, the City of Melbourne released its draft budget on Tuesday. Years of prudent financial management puts the council in a strong position to help many of our local businesses and most vulnerable citizens weather the worst of this disaster, and to be blunt, we’re throwing the kitchen sink at it.
City of Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp.Credit:Jason South
We want to be open for business as soon as possible and will do whatever it takes to bring this city back to life. Starting with $50 million in relief measures and nearly $170 million for infrastructure projects, our investment must take us from survival to revival. We don’t want just a “new normal”, we want a “new extraordinary” for Melbourne.
Step one: a rates freeze this year so we’re not adding to the burden of businesses and residents as they get back on their feet.
We’re also offering support to Queen Vic Market traders, tenants in council-owned buildings, ratepayers experiencing financial hardship and providing millions of dollars in grants for small businesses to upgrade and re-orient, to artists to invest in new works, and to community groups offering essential services.
Thousands of meals are being delivered to those in need, and food vouchers provided to international students needing support when they are so far from home. For now, nearly every city rough sleeper is safely housed in our empty city hotels thanks to rapid co-ordination with the state government.
Step two is setting up for long term revival. This will rely on deep stimulus investment in capital works and major infrastructure to immediately get people back into jobs and eventually turbo-charge productivity. We need reform to drive recovery, to ensure red tape doesn’t hinder businesses emerging from lockdown. We’ll need imagination to innovate in an environment of enforced change.
The speed of Melbourne’s recovery will determine the nation’s recovery, but clearly the City of Melbourne can’t do it alone. To rebuild this city and its workforce, we need more of the committed partnerships that are now flourishing between every level of government, the private sector and community organisations.
There are city-shaping projects, big and small, that can be fast-tracked, including a refreshed Queen Vic Market, upgrades to recreation and community centres, roads, laneways, bike lanes and footpaths, a Greenline to connect our river and open spaces, and a modernised waste collection system.
On a nation-building scale, there’ll never be a better time or greater need to catch up on social housing, especially to house our homeless. And while we pause, work could start on a tram or train line to the massive Fisherman’s Bend urban renewal site (the biggest in Australia) and the airport-to-city rail link (with a revamped Southern Cross Station). This would unlock major private investment and provide opportunities at an enormous scale.
The uncertainty of this pandemic makes it difficult to predict the outlook for our economy. These are hard times but I have faith in the pride, ingenuity, determination and agility of Melburnians. Through our combined efforts I’m optimistic we will rebuild a stronger, more prosperous city for all.
Sally Capp is lord mayor of Melbourne.