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Sydney and San Francisco both tackling the problem of too much economic success

Gabriel Metcalf committee for Sydney

Committee for Sydney’s new chief executive officer Gabriel Metcalf has spent 20 years at San Francisco’s civic planning organisation, SPUR, addressing many of the same issues facing Sydney. 

San Francisco Bay Area is struggling with “too much economic success” coupled with “a very hard time figuring out how to grow physically,” he said in a coffee meet up with The Fifth Estate.

The city has got really expensive as a result, with “lots of people who have lived there a long time now pushed out.”

SPUR worked to “define a path out of the dilemma” by showing how the Bay Area could scale up its public transport systems, add enough housing supply to ease the affordability crisis, and ramp up the social and affordable housing program.

“The goal was to try and make sure more people could participate and benefit from the economic growth,” he says. 

Metcalf says that even though the economic situation is different, Sydney is struggling with some of these same issues.

“I’ve noticed that many of the great cities in the world are experiencing deep affordability problems.”

Sydney is also in the midst of an infrastructure boom.

“I can’t think of any city in the world that’s adding as much public transport as Sydney is right now. 

“But we are at this point where it hasn’t opened yet – people have been dealing with the construction impacts – they haven’t got the benefit yet… so as Sydneysiders start to get the benefits, I think it will be appreciated.”

But public transport construction shouldn’t stop there. “We should keep building high capacity mass transport lines into the future so that over time everybody in greater Sydney has the option to not be stuck in traffic because they can get to a train station or a rapid bus line.”

Similarly, Metcalf says the organisation’s ambition is to make sure new development is improving the quality of life for Sydneysiders.

He says the city should be focusing what it takes to build complete communities, such as great architecture, walkability, pedestrian-oriented streets, parks and other amenities as well as core services such as schools and hospitals. 

First impressions of Sydney

One of the first things Metcalf has noticed in his new role is that “I’ve arrived in a place where it is possible for a government to do things”.

Unlike in the US where the checks and balances for preventing the abuse of power are notoriously strong, the Westminster system allows for comparatively more government activity. 

He sees this as “a force for both good and evil, depending on what the government does”.

“But when faced with big problems or big opportunities it’s a helpful starting place to have a system of democratic governance that is capable of acting.”

Climate change a priority area for Metcalf

Metcalf believes that the committee has “a lot more work to do” on climate change, as does Australia more generally. He says the committee has “already done a bunch of things” but hopes to “deepen the organisation’s work” in this area.

This will involve working both on the mitigation and the adaption side.

“How do we decarbonise greater Sydney on the path to decarbonising the world? How do we prepare Sydney for sea level rise and extreme heat?

Read more: Under siege: Sydney’s medieval infrastructure governance

“We’re in this really scary moment where all of the coastal cities in the world are looking at this extensive threat from sea level rise… this is an unimaginable disruption on humanity but we are not really making progress on the issue fast enough.”

Other priorities for the committee include the Metro West and western Sydney in general, housing affordability, accelerating the innovation economy and reviving the city’s nightlife. 

The Committee for Sydney is a think tank standing up for Sydney’s long-term interests that has private, civic and public members from multiple sectors.

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