Restrictions put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19 have affected people unequally, based on the type of work they do. This has highlighted the uneven way that jobs are distributed across the metropolitan area which, when combined with sharp differences in housing affordability, has created clearly defined areas of disadvantage.
Does the emerging trend towards a city in which demand for amenities is more distributed present an opportunity to develop a more equitable city?
The geography of socio-economic advantage in Melbourne has been driven by two distinct factors in recent decades:
- an increasingly sharp divide between the ‘haves’ who can afford to live in the infrastructure-rich inner suburbs, and the ‘have-nots’ living in the more affordable but less well-served outer suburbs; and
- the trend towards the casualisation of the workforce, particularly in the consumer services sector, creating an ‘underclass’ of vulnerable residents living close to their jobs in the inner city.
The deregulation of the labour market in the 1980s resulted in a rise in relatively unprotected casual and contract-based labour. Clearly, the authors of these reforms did not contemplate a pandemic such as that which we are currently facing. However, 35 years later, we can draw a direct link between the resulting labour market ‘flexibility’ and the greater impact of Covid restrictions on inner Melbourne than the outer suburbs because of its over-representation of certain employment sectors (particularly consumer services) (see Figure 1). Already predominantly low-wage and part-time, a relatively high proportion of workers in these sectors have lost their jobs or are working reduced hours. This impact is exacerbated by the higher housing costs of the inner city.
Office workers and outer suburbanites have been affected differently.
Officer workers tend to have more stable jobs, work full-time and have medium to high incomes. Their organisations have shifted to remote working models surprisingly easily, limiting the impact of Covid restrictions. Office-based employers are also offering more flexible work patterns. This has facilitated lifestyle changes, including office workers patronising their local activity centres to a much greater degree than before (when restrictions allow).
The reduced number of days requiring a commute to work and the need for a bigger home to accommodate a dedicated workspace has also shifted the balance in decisions by office workers about where to live. In a direct reversal of the trend of recent decades towards living in or close to the city centre to access its employment opportunities, there is now a movement away from the inner suburbs to regional locations where there is greater value for money in housing and closer access to nature.
The outer suburbs have traditionally provided more affordable housing for lower income workers. Census data shows that socio-economic disadvantage generally increases with distance from the CBD (see Figure 2). Outer suburbs are also generally less well served with local amenities.
The outer suburbs have not been directly affected by Covid restrictions to the same extent as the inner-city because of their more diversified employment offer. However, their affordability is at risk from encroachments by:
- the CBD service worker ‘underclass’ looking for work and more affordable housing;
- office workers seeking larger homes and gardens; and
- first home buyers taking advantage of increased government support.
As a result, outer suburbanites already at the bottom of the economic ladder may find the going tougher in a post-Covid city.
The current state of flux presents an opportunity to reimagine the spatial distribution of employment and services, and transport planning which preferences selected locations. The current geography of disadvantage was created by the historic need for office workers to work in the CBD, creating a steep escalation of house prices towards the centre of the city and resulting in a matching concentration of consumer services. If office workers can live-work anywhere, can they be encouraged to spread out more uniformly across the city (and nearby towns), flattening the differences in house prices and sharing their demand for consumer services more evenly? Could this generate a more equitable city for all?
Andrew, J., Baker, M., Guthrie, J., & Sardesai, M. (2020). Australia’s COVID-19 public budgeting response: the straitjacket of neoliberalism. Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management, Vol. 32 No. 5, pp. 759-770.
Grodach, C., Martin, D., Gower, A., Kamruzzamman, L., Silwai, D., & Truong, D. (2020). Navigating economic uncertainity in post COVID cities. Melbourne.