After living through a catastrophic bushfire in January 2020, Melbourne was hit by COVID-19. The pandemic has underlined the challenges of governing a large metropolitan area like Melbourne and the dependency of global cities of its stature on international networks. Halfway through the year, a potentially protracted economic crisis almost certainly looms. Managing a global city in the midst of overlapping crises might just be the new state of affairs.
In the middle of the global lockdown the events of late 2019 can seem like
a distant reality, but for many Melbournians they remain burned into
memory. Reports of the outbreak of what was then known as SARS-CoV-2
started spreading as the city had just finished witnessing one of the, if
not the, most devastating bushfire seasons in recorded history. With 20% of
Australia's forests burnt in bushfire, accounting for more than two-thirds
of Australia's annual emissions budget (approx. 350m tonnes of CO2) and
billions of property, agricultural, insurance and tourism damage, at the
beginning of February Melbournians were still surveying their charred
regional and suburban fringe as the pandemic hit home.
Melbournians were given just a few weeks’ respite between a climate-induced
disaster and a health catastrophe. But, nearing the end of the southern
hemisphere’s summer, the situation seems brighter than in other major
international cities. From a comparative perspective one could argue
Melbourne has been relatively untouched by the global turmoil caused by the
coronavirus: as I type this, there have been 1,182 confirmed cases in
Greater Melbourne (only 89 are currently sick, an increase of 17 from
yesterday) and 18 confirmed deaths total. Lockdown restrictions are still
in place, but are slowly easing and are set to loosen further in the months
to come as long as no further spikes in cases occur. Such figures seem very
different from those in key theatres of the crisis like Milan, New York and
The city has also been looking at the possibility of leveraging the recovery as a
transformative chance to build a better Melbourne.
Yet the global lockdown, the inevitably deep economic downturn it will
provoke, and social distancing measures are hitting hard even in the wake
of relatively comfortable contagion figures. As many have already noted,
for a predominantly urban (86%) country accounting for 25 million people,
whose economy is highly dependent on global connectivity, COVID-19 might
mark a dramatic turn for the worse even if the outbreak itself remains
contained. The federal government’s A$130bn JobKeeper wage subsidy
programme will to some extent ease the impact of the crisis on employment,
but estimates foresee the nation’s unemployment rate possibly rising to
between 10% and 15%.
Local government in Melbourne has been relatively quick to take action. The
city rapidly stepped in to offer A$5 million in grants to small and
medium-sized businesses and non-profit organisations to invest in online
and e-commerce capabilities and a A$2 million fund providing financial
assistance to artists and small organisations to develop new work, or for
the digital presentation of artistic works and performances. Importantly,
along with artists and indeed the poorest (with for instance a A$6m
programme for homeless quarantine support), the city has also sought to
support essential workers even with mundane gestures such as issuing free
parking stickers for up to 8000 frontline workers in the healthcare and
other vital services sectors. In a country built on migration, many of
those working in these jobs hail from abroad.
Here Melbourne’s “global” character has been very clearly shown. The city
also stepped in to show leadership in the protection of its large
international student body, which numbers over 200,000, at least 52,000 of
whom live in the city centre, well before its major universities acted.
Early in April the mayor and the council launched a dedicated support hub,
including advice, an ombudsman function and a hardship fund, and called for
increased support for students from overseas, many of whom found themselves
in precarious living and services situations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state government of Victoria matched this with a A$45 million
International Student Emergency Relief Fund, as well as a broader COVID-19
health costs waiver for overseas visitors
The city has also been looking at the possibility of leveraging the
recovery as a transformative chance to build a better Melbourne, starting
with experiments taking place in the midst of the crisis. This is certainly
a perfect moment for this kind of experimentation: cycling rates in the
city have been reaching record levels during lockdown, and road traffic has
reportedly fallen by 88%. The city council has been proactive about seizing
this opportunity. Plans are afoot to do away with several car parks to
allow for more footpaths and to roll out 12 kilometres of pop-up cycling
lanes across the CBD in the name of social distancing as COVID-19
restrictions start to ease. In this Melbourne has been following the
temporary mobility retrofit trend set by Milan and Berlin and has done so
as the likes of London and Paris are also moving in a similar direction.
Many of these innovations are neither novelties nor unprecedented efforts.
Much like London, Sydney had been rolling out a “cycling highway” since
2014. In fact, several of the proposed changes to the way we will at least
temporarily move in the city as we enter a new phase of the crisis were
already present in the council's 2030 Transport Strategy and are in all
effect simply being fast-tracked.
Yet Melbourne is not just the City of Melbourne (Gleeson & Spiller,
2012). The latter accounts for approximately 37 square kilometres and a
population of 169,961 and while it is certainly home to some of its major
economic, educational and cultural players and many of the renowned
landmarks, it is far from the whole of Melbourne. The wider area covers
five million people and 10,000 square kilometres, and is in turn surrounded
by not-so-small regional realities like Geelong (253,269 people) on the
south-west coast and Ballarat (107,325 people) in the north-west inlands.
Similar to Sydney, 31 municipal councils make up what we call Greater
Melbourne. This is a key local issue (Rossiter & Gibson, 2011). For
instance, the largest share of the city’s population (46.6%) lives in areas
covered by the outer local governments. In the absence of a metropolitan or
regional authority like the Greater London Authority (GLA) in London or
even just the state government coordination body of the Greater Sydney
Commission in New South Wales, it has fallen to the state government of
Victoria to manage much of the response to the crisis. In fact, many would
argue that the COVID-19 response across Australia has reminded us of the
power of premiers and states and the limits of both local councils and the
federal executive in Canberra.
The bushfire, climate and health crises all
bring to the surface the deeper underlying crisis of inequality across the greater
As flagged above, Melbourne as a city has responded proactively to several
of the chronic issues heightened by the crisis. Yet it perhaps remains less
in the global spotlight than its international peers in organisations like
the C40 Cities, 100 Resilient Cities or ICLEI – Local Governments for
Sustainability. It has not been in the limelight of international
leadership as a promoter of global – or indeed regional – discussions and
exchanges between cities. Milan has for instance become chair of the Global
Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force sponsored by C40, and Freetown has been
a regular presence in non-governmental and multilateral (virtual) fora,
sharing its dramatic experience with containing the 2014–15 Ebola epidemic.
New York City, Helsinki and Montreal are leading conversations about
leveraging the SDGs or acknowledging the possibilities of tackling
inequality in a time of deepening economic divisions (Acuto, 2020).
Here, Melbourne has an opportunity to do more. The bushfire, climate and
health crises all bring to the surface the deeper underlying crisis of
inequality across the greater metropolitan area, with major issues in terms
of poverty (12.6% in Greater Melbourne), homelessness (up by nearly 50% in
the last decade) and vulnerability for the lower-income households across
The bushfire crisis had already begun underscoring this with an emphasis on
suburbs and peri-urban livelihoods in the global city (Connolly et al.,
2020). COVID-19 has also hopefully brought into play a more explicit focus
on these more cross-cutting dangers from hundreds of thousands at risk (Lee
et al., 2020). Action on this front has been a little slow coming, but both
state and city executives are relatively well attuned to the issue. Once
again, the opportunity for Melbourne is clear: it can act as a true bridge
between continued local leadership, its rightful place as a global city
amongst its peers and as an important regional voice for Southeast Asia and
the Pacific, but it could also step up internationally as much as a
promoter of discussions about widening urban inequality gaps in the midst
of yet another major disruption. Indeed, we should not discount that this
crisis may be far from over and that the next crisis may be just around the
corner. In January the catastrophic bushfire season seemed to have set the
tone for the Victorian capital for 2020. Then COVID-19 came to Melbourne.
Halfway through the year, a potentially protracted economic crisis almost
certainly looms. Managing a global city in the midst of overlapping crises
might just be the new state of affairs, and not just down here in the
Acuto, M. “COVID-19: Lessons for an Urban(izing) World”. One Earth 2(4),
2020, pp. 317-319.
Connolly, C., Keil, R. & Ali, S. H. “Extended urbanisation and the
spatialities of infectious disease: Demographic change, infrastructure and
governance”. Urban Studies, 2020 (online first). [Accessed on 19.05.2020]
Gleeson, B. & Spiller, M. “Metropolitan governance in the urban age:
trends and questions”. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability,
4(4), 2012, pp. 393-397.
Lee, V. J., Ho, M., Kai, C. W., Aguilera, X., Heymann, D. &
Wilder-Smith, A. “Epidemic preparedness in urban settings: new challenges
and opportunities”. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 20(5), 2020, pp.
Rossiter, B. & Gibson, K. "Walking and performing ‘the city’: A
Melbourne chronicle". In Bridge, Gary, and Sophie Watson (Eds.), The New
Blackwell Companion to the City (pp.488-498). John Wiley & Sons, 2011.