How experts build world class cities

Exploring how modern CBDs are driving real community engagement and economic activity

December 20, 2022

Image shows birds' eye view of a bustling night market on the water.

The race to revive major cities around the world has been at the forefront of economic recovery planning in recent times. But beyond the scope of revival is something a little less tangible – building the brand of a world class city. 

The blueprint behind this concept is less about immediate survival. It’s about driving strategies to foster thriving communities that can be sustained over the long-term; and it’s about leveraging the CBD’s existing spaces to do it.  

From integrating unique activations to special amenities, today's city experts are proposing bold ideas to revolutionise the traditional CBD into precincts that people actually want to visit outside of work hours. Taking on this challenge demands experts across various interests on the community building spectrum. 

Steve Cox, the CEO of Destination NSW; James Hulme, the Director of External Affairs and Programs, Office of the 24-Hour Economy Commissioner; Jennifer Di Bartolomeo, Head of Asset Services, Place & Experience, Office at Charter Hall; and Mick Gibb, Chief Executive Officer at the Night Time Industries Association, are just a few of these experts.  

These are their strategies for building world class cities that drive engagement and economic activity. 

Challenges of the modern CBD 

In a global city like Sydney, ranking third in the 2019 Global Liveability Index doesn’t imply an absence of its underlying shortcomings.  

Gibb believes two of those challenges are young people being left out of the conversation of post-Covid recovery planning, and the misconceptions about the city's stale nightlife. 

“The argument that Sydney is dead is a complete furphy. There’s plenty happening. It’s about getting people to feel confident about being able to go out, that there’ll be something on, and that they’ll be able to get home safely.  

“There are options available; it’s rethinking how do we see Sydney and our night life.” 

The latter point is a significant observation shared by Hulme who heads the 24-hour economy program for Investment NSW.  

“Safety is a major priority for our office. Everything we do is about how to make the going out experience memorable for young or vulnerable people. Sydney is the fourth safest city in the world. It’s a good place to be but we’re not complacent,” he says.   

“There’s some really interesting use of technology. There are Bluetooth apps to track where your friends are. Safety used to be about physical harm, but hygiene and cleanliness is now a priority as well.” 

He also highlights a past era in Sydney where certain suburbs were deemed as no-go zones for tourists due to high rates of violence or crime. With high-profile events like South by Southwest coming to Sydney in 2023 for the first time ever, Hulme says that major cities cannot afford these kinds of blemishes on their reputation if they want to become world class.  

“It's why safety is so important to our agenda.” 

And of course, economic factors also play a crucial pillar.   

“Things like restoring consumer and industry confidence at night,” adds Gibb. “Empowering businesses to rethink their business models and changing their narrative about the nightlife.” 

What makes a world class city  

Building a world class future city takes tenacity, planning and patience. For Cox, who led the return of Sydney’s iconic Vivid Sydney festival after a major pandemic hiatus, diversity is paramount in drawing out the masses. 

“We're always mindful of the diversity of our offer. We want to be the major events capital of Asia Pacific. It doesn’t mean having three major sporting events; it means having diversity across sports, culture and blockbuster pieces. And underneath that, having the best shows, concerts and exhibitions in our galleries and museums.  

Diversity also covers the three tiers of local, domestic and international tourists.  

“The NSW Visitor Economy Strategy 2030 is our north star. When you develop work to come out of that initiative, you think about advocacy at the local level. We need to build advocacy of the people who live in this city and get them to talk more positively, engage and experience it.  

“The more we experience, the more we advocate to tell visitors to go to those places or see those things. It builds excitement into the city and that’s what brings people in to invest alongside businesses and students.”  

According to Destination NSW’s research, a city with higher advocacy from locals will see a visitor spending 35% more on average per visit versus the cities that don’t embrace advocating locals.  

Once the locals are equipped, Cox will then move onto the messaging for intrastate, interstate and international guests. This snowball approach is what he hopes will reinforce the brand of a city like Sydney as the premier visitor economy in the Asia Pacific.   

Di Bartolomeo sees a different gap for using diversity to bring people into existing buildings.   

“We can’t just think of office spaces as static buildings. We need to create spaces for a diverse and eclectic population. 

“From the retail offerings and high-quality amenities we curate, to the bars next door, Charter Hall is driven to find innovative ways to invest in people and place beyond simply the primary purpose of our assets. This is how we unlock value, engage with communities of all ages and backgrounds, reinvigorate our CBDs and encourage economic recovery. 

“It's a great proposal,” adds Hulme. “Build playgrounds in cities and CBDs to encourage families with those kind of amenities.” 

Awakening a sleepless city 

With NSW being the first state government in the country to employ a dedicated 24-hour economy commissioner, cities like Sydney are on the fast track to becoming a city that doesn’t sleep.  

“It’s a reflection of this debate that came 30 years ago from policy makers who saw that we have economic strategies for the day, but not after 6pm,” explains Hulme.  

His team are currently analysing strategies around:  

  • How the transport network can support a 24-hour economy 
  • How to encourage more late night trading 
  • How to create more amenities in the city for people  

For Gibb, leveraging the nightlife sector to drive the culture of a 24-hour economy is equally imperative.  

“Nightlife is so important to drawing people out and the CBD plays such a critical role in bringing everyone from all different parts of Sydney to the one area. It’s a critical part in being able to curate those different experiences.  

“A venue can put on one thing for one music genre and another the next night. Venues need to be interchangeable, but people need to be able to go out knowing they’ll find their tribe. Creating uniquely curated spaces is something critical that came out of the Youth Advisory Council.”  

Driving the incentive of this 24-hour economy means opening up the entire city of Sydney – not just the CBD itself, according to Hulme.   

“We've got the world’s most beautiful iconic harbor and urban beaches. When people come, of course they visit those. But we also want them to visit places like Marrickville, Newtown and Chatswood. We’ve already got fantastic districts; we just need to work a bit more at making that offer to international audiences. There’s a much bigger story to tell for Sydney.” 

Flexibility of spaces 

Di Bartolomeo understands how important it is for buildings to remain flexible to encourage people back into the CBD during the day.  

"Our customers are tenants in office buildings. We know their usage patterns have changed, and while flexibility is important, we’re committed to creating spaces people want to use and be in.  

“There isn’t one magic answer to try and attract everyone. We spend time doing our research and understanding the needs of our customers and what they’re looking for.  

More specifically, she identifies the pulling power of the right amenities in office spaces: 

  • The arrival experience with common areas like the lobby and concierge 
  • Simple amenities like showers and beauty and grooming facilities

On the larger scale of placemaking, Di Bartolomeo has executed more ambitious activations in her office spaces. During Melbourne Fashion Week, she partnered with organisers to turn an office building into a designer runway.    

“What I enjoyed was the diversity of people at the event. It was influencers mixed with suits, and people of all walks of life. We are this magnetic place and yes, the key reason for the place is to work, but the fact that we’re looking at this in a multidimensional way, that it’s flexible and malleable enough to host something like a fashion show is amazing.” 

CBRE: A partner in realising your world class city 

Building a world class city demands careful planning and contribution from the most experienced names in urban property. CBRE’s 116-year history demonstrates its breadth of in-house commercial property management services to help support some of the biggest city branding projects.   

  • CBRE’s Property Management team can assist city growth initiatives by generating new ideas within the walls of your building, or helping to conceptualise the social component of your boldest ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) ambitions 
  • Our Experience Services team combines our talents in placemaking, hospitality, technology and property with landlords to create an unparalleled workplace experience. This division can take on everything from concierge services to events and activations to hospitality-style services and data-informed decision making for landlords 
  • CBRE prides itself on its Retail Services capabilities. Experts here specialise in driving tenant engagement, cultivating communities and enhancing customer experience in retail spaces 
  • Today’s communities believe in sustainability. CBRE’s ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) services encapsulate the wealth of knowledge required to reduce carbon emissions, maximise sustainability credentials and positively impact local communities in your chosen space