Four questions have been raised with me consistently over the last year. Working from Home — will it kill the city centre? How will small businesses survive? How can you get there with all the road cones? What on earth is going on in Queen St?
When I wrote with some excitement about the city centre's transformation in last year's Project Aucklandpublication, I talked about what needed to happen to support the city as it transitions — urging public organisations to align their work and mitigate the impacts on business, their customers and suppliers. I noted then that "it is a difficult time for impacted businesses and they are reliant on loyal customers".
Little did we know that a few weeks later, all our city centre's customer sources would be turned off at once as the Covid-induced lockdown hit home. The consequences have been extraordinarily hard for some, and people are asking what this means for the future of cities.
With impacted businesses shouldering the loss of around half a billion dollars of consumer spending over the last year, and billions of dollars of public and private investment under way, our city centre's recovery is paramount.
While new high growth sectors are emerging and there have been some spectacular stories of reinvention, the fast rollout of the vaccine and the safe, progressive opening of the border is essential for many businesses. We also need our workers and customers.
Great cities have great hearts and in Auckland we are fortunate to have other features that bring people back and attract domestic visitors.
A bumper events programme, arts and cultural institutions, entertainment, public spaces that people enjoy and a growing residential population, all add to the fabric of what makes our city centre interesting. And it's not hard to imagine a line-up of people wanting to come here after priceless international coverage of the city during America's Cup sailing.
To give some broader context, cities in Asia have not collapsed from Covid and the reasons people are drawn together in a central place are still there. And though it's a bit early to know exactly where the working from home continuum will land, I remain confident in the future of our city centre — as evidenced also by ongoing public and private investment. But we do need a change in approach to ensure we manoeuvre through the short to medium term issues as well as we can.
In terms of working from home, I can see how this suits some people and organisations. It fits with what was already a growing trend for increased flexibility and work-life balance. However, as time goes on, we are hearing more about the downsides too.
Impacts on productivity, culture, dealing with issues better dealt with face to face, ideas and connections from brainstorming and running into people unexpectedly, learning from colleagues, and access to contemporary offices close to public transport and amenities.
Our city centre is built for large numbers of people (to fill hotels, office and retail accommodation, apartments and public transport) and the ecosystem in place needs a lot more people to sustain it than just those living at close range right now.
Just as employers are doing what they can to create workplaces that their employees want to come back to, our city centre needs to step up in creating an appealing and accessible environment for the workers and customers we need to return. We have shining examples like Britomart, Commercial Bay and Wynyard Quarter.
Innovation in the way people use and access the city centre is urgent. How and when freight is delivered, where people go for taxis and ride shares, how scarce space is used so we don't have buses and bikes, emergency vehicles, scooters and pedestrians falling over each other for the same scarce space.
What about Queen St? It is one of the country's most famous streets and it will be as important in future as it has been historically. It's a significant connector from the waterfront to K Rd and key streets straddle it from all sides of the city. Heart of the City loves the idea of creating a unique place that people come from far and wide to see and spend time in. We just want change to be done well.
This has led me to reflect that there are some great places in the city centre that have been created and managed in a way that maintains a quality experience on an ongoing basis. I would be a lot more comfortable if we could replicate this approach to deliver a high-quality and enduring result for Queen St too.
It's been a momentous and highly disruptive year. We need to keep looking ahead, beyond the immediate challenges to progress the vision for our waterfront, meet environmental goals, determine where our city centre kids will go to school and ensure that people housed temporarily through Covid have permanent housing. There is a lot to be getting on with.
How we manage change is as important as it was this time last year — it's just that now the stakes are higher.
Viv Beck is chief executive of Heart of the City.