Infrastructure Opinion

Battle of scales: Our CBDs are no match for a micrometre invader

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Despite its microscopic size, COVID-19 has been strong enough to disrupt our biggest CBDs (Image by Dan Jensen)

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that something as microscopic as a virus is enough to weaken our strongest city technology, writes Dr Peter Fisher.

A FEW YEARS AGO,  we were advised that a new type of elevator was on the cards destined to transform our cities. No longer operating vertically on the Z-axis and propelled by cables, this new development had a capacity for X-Y-axis movement within buildings using revolutionary flat belt technology. As we now know, another technology curated in deep time and cultured by our hanging out with other species was to take a hand.

As a result, two scales are now up against one another — a metre scale frequented by large structures and a micrometre scale frequented by a pathogen. One represents something we’re at home with, the other a millionth smaller.

At a time when nearly everyone on the planet is susceptible, there is likely to be little evolutionary pressure on the virus to spread better, so even potentially beneficial mutations might not flourish.

William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, said:

“As far as the virus is concerned, every single person that it comes to is a good piece of meat. There’s no selection to be doing it any better.”

Old pieces of machinery

Last month, NSW Minister for the Environment Matt Kean noted that:

“It took NSW 60 years to build the existing power grid. All the generators, all the substations, all the poles and wires, everything. In the next 15 years, four of the five existing power stations will close. It has nothing to do with climate change. These are old pieces of machinery.”

As with Keenan’s generators and wires, are people-dense downtowns, with their glass vats full of knowledge workers attended by mass transit systems, old pieces of machinery, too? Can Lego-like ecosystems made of glass, steel, concrete, asphalt and heavy rail flex up? Are they any match for fleet-footed F.A.N.G.s keen to cultivate/shape a market created by quarantining and social distancing? 

Nomadic technologies

In fact, co-working stations and hot-desking on floor-upon-floor of office towers have been a nursery for software that is now garnishing the suburbs with renewed vigour.

The pandemic has stomped on the heels of architectural retrofits offering a private space closer to home where you can actually focus. With working from home now becoming widespread, it’s unclear as to the extent that a reconfiguring of spaces in private residences is undercutting the WeWork business model. On the other hand, homeschooling makes it hard to jostle work commitments.

The portability of iPhone/tablets had earlier provided a powerful demonstration of the pluses of time-shifting blurring the distinction between work and non-work, with trains, cafes and other public spaces offering venues.

Brand CBD

The influential American urban planner Jane Jacobs thought that conditions for a vibrant city life were districts having a capacity to attract persons of different purposes around the clock. Blocks needed to be small, with many opportunities for pedestrians to interact amidst a diverse range of buildings. And, there needed to be reasonable density. The idea was that “vitality” had a lot to do with chance encounters.

Edward Glaeser’s 2013 book Triumph of the City similarly cast cities as places where human ingenuity can flourish, skills are developed and refined (amidst a vertical city) — traits regularly touted by our lord mayors.   

Repair jobs

However, measures like capital city recovery plans look to have their work cut out for them restoring something resembling Glaeser-normal.

A clue as to difficulties facing recovery task forces insofar as buildings are concerned stem from the French experience where 83 per cent of white-collar workers have returned to offices with one in four clusters now originating from there. These are regarded as sufficiently serious for the French Government to mandate masks.

But even software in the vein of smart buildings such as touchless entry, one-way lifts, temperature check stations, GPS fobs that track your every movement – and vibrate if you get within two metres of another employee – and renovations that cost millions count for little if workers are still using mass transit or are at large in crowded public settings.

Waiting for lifts in foyers is similarly a logistical nightmare. Most highrise office workers can’t realistically climb up dozens of floors by using the stairs. Similar caveats apply to highrise residential towers.

Other measures to pandemic-proof buildings continue, including Erickson’s pilot office in Bucharest using things like higher ceilings to install air filtration equipment; avoidance of floor heating systems that can lift aerosols; and the use of rounded corners in crowded spaces that minimise bacterial deposits. Meanwhile, the NYC model for sidewalk dining/eating is about to be rolled out in Melbourne offering lower risk transmission paths vis-a-vis the confines of indoor settings.

But at the end of the day, all of the above are geared to a fine grain understanding of infection pathways at a certain point in time and can at best be no better than the latest preprint.

One door shuts another one (or two or three) opens

Whilst the pandemic could yet see off the CBDs as we now know them, it equally has a capacity to give impetus to concepts like the 20-minute city where everything can/should be accessed within that time frame.

Moreover, to the extent that it brings people closer to trappings of a ground-based existence – weeds, grass, trees, flowers, birds and worms – it also represents an opportunity to ramp up contact with the wild which is still is in evidence in suburban spaces. 

And then there has been a remarkable reclaiming of city precincts by wild animals across the globe.

This new world of cities won’t obey the same rules as the old compact of nations; they will write their own opportunistic codes of conduct, animated by the need for efficiency, connectivity, and security above all else.


Time, technology, and population growth have massively accelerated the advent of this new urbanised era. Already, more than half the world lives in cities, and the percentage is growing rapidly.

So wrote Parag Khanna a decade ago.

His vision may be something many of us covet, particularly those with significant business, education and cultural ties in central business districts, but the World Health Organisation has said that there will be further pandemics coming at us and thus vaccine developers will be burning the midnight oil in their labs. In consequence, social distancing looks to be here to stay and continues to be at odds with people-dense built environments and their trappings. 

Time to start over

Every now and then – more so, once in a lifetime – there can be an opportunity to start over from inflection points.   

The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in food supply chains, education infrastructure, cybersecurity, job markets, information networks and more. Moreover, the contents of ISO 37123 – an international standard for resilient cities (finalised just last December) – suggest that there is still a way to go in revising our thinking in the wake of this intervention by Mother Nature.

And remarks by Douglas Rushkoff, a Professor at City University, NY, are apposite:

I was at one company, it is really one of the ten biggest companies in the world and the CEO was up there having his senior vice presidents and executives shout ‘5.3, 5.3’, which was the growth target, the per cent growth target for the coming year. And I got up to do my little speech for them and I said, if one of the ten biggest corporations in the world can't be satisfied with how big it has gotten, if even it needs to grow bigger in order to be okay, then there is a real problem here.

Is that a setting we want to go back to after all this is over?

Dr Peter Fisher is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture & Built Environment, Deakin University.

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