Melbourne endured one of the longest COVID-19 lockdown periods of any city in the world, but the experience has only fortified its resolve.
In a similar way that the Japanese concept of Kintsugi takes somewhat broken items and repairs them to be stronger and more beautiful.
Lord Mayor Sally Capp has spoken at TEDxMelbourne about the city’s journey from lockdown to boomtown. Here’s what she had to say:
There aren’t many who will stand in front of an audience like this and say COVID has been good for anything or anyone.
But I’m here to do just that.
Before I start ruffling feathers, let’s do something together.
Cast your mind back to where you were and how you felt when you realised COVID was a big deal.
Not an everyday headline crafted to evoke unnecessary dread and division.
But that something that compelled you to grab another pack of toilet paper at the supermarket.
Got your moment? Great hold onto that.
I was in my office.
In the Melbourne Town Hall at the heart of a city that was – in the decade prior – the world’s most liveable city for seven consecutive years.
Melbourne was the engine room of the state’s economy, the fastest-growing city in Australia with an incredible track record of transformation.
The City of Melbourne’s greatest challenge at the time was managing a decade-long booming population.
It was a good challenge to have – our streets and footpaths were bustling with city workers, students, and visitors both local and international.
And there I was – two years into my first term as Lord Mayor – poised to seize the opportunities before us and deliver for the community.
But that all came crashing down with the bring bring of a telephone.
It was one, then two, then three managers of major city events – including the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – calling to tell me they were cancelling because of the virus.
Nothing like this had ever happened before – no matter what, it was always “on with the show”.
My stomach dropped.
As it would each time we had to peel ourselves off the floor to face COVID’s never-ending barrage of challenges.
Looking back at ourselves in those turning-point moments, there was so much innocence.
Standing there in the toilet paper aisle, or shocked into silence on the other end of a phone with no idea of the enormity of what was coming.
In Melbourne particularly, COVID-19 – this strange collection of letters and numbers – would change us forever, and – in my opinion – for the better;
Taking us from lockdown to boomtown.
Now anyone who knows me, knows that I’m an eternal optimist, but this isn’t me donning my rose-tinted glasses.
Forged through fire.
There is beauty in what remains.
In the midst of chaos … there is also opportunity.
You’ve all heard variations on these.
There are so many because it’s human nature to face down adversity and pirouette into something promising.
But let’s go back into the fire for a moment.
Melbourne clocked up a record 262 days in lockdown. Among the most of any city in the world.
Protecting our health was paramount.
But consequently, Melbourne’s celebrated vibrancy was decimated overnight. International students left, businesses shut up shop, the streets emptied. That prosperity we had taken for granted for so many years was now threatened, and our community suffered.
Now, many of us around the world were locked down.
But can you imagine 262 days – 103 shy of a whole year – stuck inside, unable to hug friends and loved ones?
Missing births, missing last farewells.
Months hidden behind a mask, restricted to a five-kilometre radius, and subject to a 9pm to 5am curfew?
This was Melbourne’s reality.
But what is clear as I stand here with you today, is that Melbourne has emerged bruised, but bolder and braver because of it all.
Let me ask you to go back to that pivotal COVID memory.
Sit in that anguish and anxiety, the uncertainty and fear that you felt in that moment.
It’s uncomfortable isn’t it?
Now how long does it take for that memory to give way to feelings of hope and determination, of being in it together, of the noise fading and giving way to innovation, collaboration and fortitude?
Teddy Bears in windows, decorated wooden spoons adorning nature strips, messages of encouragement chalked into the pavement.
For me, it’s this second feeling that defines the COVID experience;
That floods the fissures of fragmented lockdown memories and holds them together like the gold in kintsugi pottery.
As a city we could have been forgiven for curling up in the foetal position and riding COVID out beneath a doona. And while there were certainly days like that, the City of Melbourne never stopped planning for future prosperity, sustainability and inclusion.
In the breaks between lockdowns, I sat in our community council planning sessions and listened as Melburnians urged us to think big for Melbourne’s future.
These were residents and café owners, artists and event organisers, students and social workers. Melburnians through and through.
They were fresh from juggling remote work and home schooling, the constantly-changing restrictions, but they couldn’t have been more determined.
They wanted us to continue to build on ambitious initiatives like responding to climate change, advancing reconciliation and addressing the housing crisis.
Melbourne is a community that cares and our residents, workers and traders wanted us to step up for the city’s most vulnerable.
When I came to the role of Lord Mayor, I came with a desire to make a dent in the homelessness crisis.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think it was possible to end it in my lifetime, let alone my term.
But when COVID hit, we worked together, across all levels of government, with support agencies, community housing associations and hotel operators to help house 2000 people in central hotels.
And do you know what that did? It changed lives.
I recently received an email from a gentleman who lived in a hotel over lockdowns. Despite experiencing homelessness for some years, this hotel stay was the circuit breaker he needed to turn his life around. He now has a job and secure housing.
There are still too many people sleeping rough, still too many people at-risk of homelessness.
But by partnering, and combining resources, experience and expertise, we have shown that by working together– just perhaps – we can make the impossible possible.
And our local businesses were also doing the unthinkable showing remarkable ingenuity and persistence.
Let’s talk about one “Big Pirouette”.
With restaurants now empty of diners, celebrated Melbourne chef – Shane Delia – dreamed up Providoor.
This delicious lockdown project became the centrepiece to lockdown birthdays and anniversaries – and in 262 days there were plenty of those.
It brought the city’s finest food to homes and humble dinner tables for the first time.
It meant that restaurants who previously “didn’t do takeaway” had a platform to survive lockdowns.
And Melbourne’s best restaurants still use Providoor as a way to diversify their offering post lockdown, and Shane Delia won a Business Champion Melbourne Award.
As a Council, we also performed many pandemic pirouettes that have changed the shape of our city forever.
We introduced a business concierge service that has reached out to local business owners more than 46,000 times offering support, advice and access to grants.
We didn’t previously do call-out programs but this service is here to stay and we are a better organisation because of it.
Outdoor dining parklets were delivered in record time to a chorus of people saying that Melbourne is not an outdoor city.
Instead, the program meant our cafes, pubs and restaurants could welcome more guests back – and sooner – as restrictions lifted.
And the parklets are now a permanent positive feature of Melbourne.
Will we, won’t we?
The conjecture of lockdown rumours circulating was crushing for our events industry.
Will we, won’t we?
I spoke to many event managers desperately seeking certainty through six excruciating lockdowns.
We’ve always been the events capital of the nation, but there was a time when that title was under threat.
My heart now swells with the sights and sounds of Melbourne being Melbourne again.
How delightful it is to see our famous MCG roaring with record crowds of over 100,000 people.
Queues around the block for our world-renowned coffee.
Sold out tickets to exhibitions like Rone, and award-winning productions like Hamilton.
All signs the wounds are healing.
But there is a lingering acknowledgment, thanks to COVID, that tomorrow is never guaranteed. And we won’t take any of the ‘only in the city’ experiences for granted again.
Devising and accelerating big ideas eased the pain of ongoing lockdowns.
Ideas such as Greenline – a city-shaping project to transform four kilometres of the northbank of the Yarra River-Birrarung into a continuous pathway connecting green open spaces and bringing Australia’s ancient Aboriginal history to life.
Or Power Melbourne – an independent network of mid-scale batteries generating renewable energy and driving green tech and new jobs to make Melbourne the centre of clean energy innovation in Australia.
There are still businesses on their knees, there is still so much more to do.
Our gross local product prior to COVID was a record $104 billion. It took a dive during lockdowns but has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, and with the positive momentum from big ideas driving new economic activity we expect to hit $150 billion by 2031.
Now that’s what I call lockdown to boomtown.
It’s thanks to the debilitating impacts of COVID, the 262 days as a broken city, that we have achieved the seemingly impossible, pirouetted, taken risks, accelerated progress and dreamed big.
As I close today, let me share one more COVID memory.
I was walking through Carlton when I spotted someone sporting a home-made t-shirt.
In lettering across the back were the words – ‘Melbourne – world’s most resilient city.’
And underneath were the dates of each of Melbourne’s lockdowns, like battle scars in fancy font.
I love it.
It speaks to the power of our bruise. To the ways that adversity has strengthened us and our resolve, not just as a leading capital city, but as a community of people.
We now share an unbreakable commitment to creating a more vibrant, more inclusive and more sustainable city as we step out of COVID’s clutches – emboldened.