Three years ago, Gabriel Metcalf arrived in Sydney for the first time. He was leading a study tour as CEO of SPUR, a policy and advocacy group based in San Francisco. He had few expectations, apart from visiting iconic buildings and the harbour, and certainly didn’t expect the visit to be the source of his next career. The tour introduced Metcalf to Michael Rose AM FAICD, then a board member of independent think tank Committee for Sydney. When the committee was looking for a new CEO, Rose, who had taken over the chair from Lucy Turnbull, turned to the American.
“It was clear to me Gabriel understood the global trends in cities and, because of his experience in the [San Francisco’s] Bay Area, was someone who had real insights about opportunities and challenges for Sydney,” says Rose. “He was talking about cities in the way the committee talks about cities. Also, he was excited about what was happening in Sydney.”
Metcalf accepted the job and in January this year began his tenure as CEO of the Committee for Sydney, which bills itself as “a champion for the whole of Sydney, providing thought leadership beyond the electoral cycle”. In practical terms, it undertakes evidence-based policy development and then advocates policy options. The committee has recently added its voice to the Parramatta Metro proposal, the night-time economy debate and consideration of high-speed rail links to Wollongong and Newcastle.
“We talk about social and economic impacts and when decisions are made for the city, we try to have some influence on outcomes,” says Rose, who has been on the board for five years, and chair for three. “We often do things quietly; we don’t stand around screaming about policy options.”
Rose says that as a not-for-profit policy member organisation, the committee’s board is keenly aware of maximising its policy heft with the limited resources at its disposal. “We have board members who are very happy to engage with the CEO and the rest of the team on policy issues when asked,” says Rose. “By the same token, the board is good at providing guidance without stepping into Gabriel’s space.”
It’s an approach Metcalf has sought to amplify since starting as CEO, leaning strongly on the combined experience of both board and its membership base. “We have a really hands-on board, which I have been making more hands-on,” he says. “They do a couple of things that help me do my job — they are thought partners and they provide access. Especially as a newcomer to Sydney, there are people on the board who know a lot on virtually every topic who help me out. The board members also open doors for me to meet the people I need to.”
This means the board is involved in far more than meeting twice a year to deal with a pro forma agenda approving budgets. “The goal for board meetings is to have generative discussions where we are figuring things out,” says Metcalf. “It’s a collection of extremely high-level people, so my goal is to make them feel like their time is not being wasted.”
Michael Rose: How boards work
“A good board provides clarity around the strategic direction for the organisation. It provides clarity for the chief executive around priorities and expectations, and sets the tone for the organisation, particularly in an advocacy organisation, its voice and how it wants to position itself.”
Gabriel Metcalf: How cities work
“Part of the magic of city life is that [cities] are a container for human difference that allows all kinds of people to live on top of one another and still get along. Sometimes that means ignoring each other, sometimes that means celebrating each other, and everything in between. But what is so wonderful about city life is that it holds all of these differences.”
The big four
Metcalf sees four main issues bearing on Sydney — problems many of the world’s fast-growing cities with strong economies are dealing with.
“Housing costs too much, it’s hard to move around, there is a growing divide between the haves and have-nots,” says Metcalf. “Those three problems are shared by Sydney, San Francisco, New York, London and many other cities. Then, for Sydney, there’s the existential threat of sea level rise. The world’s coastal cities will in the long term have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new infrastructure that doesn’t appreciably make anything work better, but simply protects the continued existence of the city.”
However, Metcalf sees a distinction in his adopted city’s capacity to deal with these challenges — the ability to get things done.
“A lot of the problems cities in America are dealing with are fundamentally problems of governance where it has become impossible to take action,” he says. “Sydney is not faced with those problems — here it’s possible to take action.”
Rose believes the low-density, car-dependent model Sydney is currently locked into has to change, and that inequality is a critical point that needs to be addressed. “In some cities, inequality is harder to spot, but in Sydney it has a pretty clear geographic dimension,” he says.
“All the current planning and delivery is designed to address that, to shift connectivity, jobs and opportunity more equitably across the city. Sydney is growing and the challenge is to make that growth the mechanism for a more equitable, inclusive and fairer city.”
In a system as complex as Sydney’s, transformation comes in phases. Just as the committee itself is looking to add more staff, as it becomes more sophisticated and publicly visible in its advocacy, so the city will slowly emerge into its new form. “Cities do not change all at once,” says Metcalf. “Cities change in layers and each generation has the opportunity to contribute to the city — to add a new layer.”