May 19, 2022 | By Joyce DiMascio

Sydney is emerging from the under the clouds of the first two years of the pandemic. It is full of energy with businesses starting on the road to rebuilding.

One of the city’s leading advocates for building a more connected and engaged city is Gabriel Metcalf, CEO of influential think tank the Committee for Sydney.

During the darkest days of lockdowns and border closures, the organisation was highly active, advocating for the events industry, including business events. Along with a coalition representing all parts of the events industry, the Committee for Sydney produced a substantial proposal trying to get more support for the events sector to help the industry get back on its feet.

Influential, wide-ranging, research-led and engaged, the Committee for Sydney has taken on a brief to help make Sydney a better city. A more sustainable and vibrant city, where quality of life for residents can sit comfortably alongside successful businesses, all in harmony with the environment.

micenet spoke with Metcalf about the Committee for Sydney and its work.

Metcalf first came to Sydney on a study tour for the urban policy group he headed in San Francisco called SPUR, after a suggestion from one of its board members that the organisation should visit Sydney.

And because of this study tour, Metcalf ultimately made the move to Sydney in 2019.

“I fell in love with the place. I did not at the time imagine I would ever get to live here. But that was certainly the reason that I took the call when the recruiter reached out,” he says.

“I catch myself all the time and can’t believe I’m really getting to live here.”

He says Sydney is like no other city.

“It’s a city of great contrasts – between the very high intensity urbanism and nature. You experience that as a tourist when you go to Circular Quay. You’ve got the water on one side and the tall buildings on the other.

“But living here you get deeper into the city. You get to the many other layers beyond that first impression.

“You get to see more neighbourhoods and you get to know the people. It’s been very good for my kids. I came here with two teenage boys who were quite unsure about coming halfway around the world. What could it be like? But it’s been great for them.”

Since he’s taken over the reins at the Committee for Sydney, he has built a new team and their work is evolving to take in all parts of Sydney, way beyond the harbourside CBD.

The committee’s advocacy agenda is now also focussed on Western Sydney and its under-construction airport as well as neighbourhoods north, south, east and west. The whole of Greater Sydney is on their watch.

And therein lies one of the most noticeable changes that has occurred since he took the reins pre-COVID.

His staff say that as an outsider, he comes with fresh eyes and can see opportunity rather than barriers.

It’s this fresh perspective, his intellect, professional background in city and regional planning and the experience of running a similar organisation that equipped him well for the job.

“Having run one of these before, I felt that Committee for Sydney had a lot of potential to get to the next level,” he says.

In his first 100-day plan, Metcalf set himself a clear target of meeting with 150 members to learn about the city and to hear the members’ views about what was working for them and what wasn’t.

“It was also a way to assess the state of the organisation,” he says.

“The committee relies on its board and its members for energy, initiative, ideas and relationships. It feels a bit like a certain type of a social movement of people who are really invested in Sydney, but also are not satisfied with resting on its laurels.

“It’s people who are quite ambitious for Sydney being better than it is.

“Our mission is to make Sydney the best city in the world – I feel this really expresses something about Sydney’s civic culture. It’s very ambitious. It’s also very globally-oriented. It’s paying attention to the rest of the world. It’s not insular.”

And with this orientation, the Committee for Sydney recrafted its foundation platform around six programme areas: economy, planning, transport, culture, resilience and governance.

Each program area is supported by a strategy that drives the organisation’s advocacy work and creates the sharp focus and consistency that plays out in its public commentary about Sydney – all parts of it.

“We very much do see ourselves as representing the whole of Greater Sydney, north south, east and west.

“We view Greater Sydney as being in an important partnership with Newcastle and Wollongong,” he says.

He says that he was gratified to see the Greater Sydney Commission expanded into the Greater Cities Commission with its focus on six cities including Newcastle and Wollongong.

He says one of the big differences between Melbourne and Sydney is that Sydney has always been a poly-centric city including cities like Parramatta, Liverpool and Campbelltown, an attitude which emerged in the 1800s and is therefore not new.

“There’s a network of rail stations in town centres. That has always been part of Sydney,” he says.

And as Sydney is rebounding from the early parts of the pandemic, more and more of these other cities are becoming very public in their celebrations of reopening. In the southwest, Ramadan was marked with massive crowds drawn to street celebrations.

We seem to be seeing much more vitality, public activation and embracing of the cultural foundations and the spirit of those places in a non-tokenistic way. The question is, has that happened by accident at the grassroots of those communities out of necessity, or because of this master plan, or master vision, for a culturally vibrant, inclusive, global Greater Sydney?

Metcalf believes it has emerged organically as the culture has changed.

“There’s this idea of urbanism as an experience that I think is very desirable. A lot of people understand the benefits and excitement of city life. But if you’re not careful, it can become a very exclusive experience that only people with enough money to be in the historic core of a city get to experience.

“What I think Sydney is experiencing is the realisation that urbanism can be much more widespread than the binary contrast between city and suburb,” he says.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow, including Metcalf’s view on business events.