Institutionalising Design Excellence in Central Sydney 1988-2000


  • Robert Freestone UNSW Australia
  • Gethin Davison UNSW Australia
  • Richard Hu University of Canberra
  • Sarah Baker UNSW Australia



High-quality architectural and urban design are now widely regarded as key contributors to the competitive advantage of global cities. Sydney, Australia is no exception. Since 2000 ‘design excellence’ has become a central mantra applied to improve design quality. Focusing on the jurisdiction of Sydney City Council, this paper identifies an assemblage of three threads from which design excellence (and in particular mandatory competitive design processes) emerged as a planning objective in the late 20th century. Deep into the post-war period, local government planning processes were still enmeshed in a statutory land use planning system based on a traditional town and country planning paradigm. From the late 1980s these processes were challenged by newer understandings of the ‘design dividend’ rewarding competitive global cities within an emerging neo-liberal rubric. From 2000 Sydney CBD’s touchstone of design excellence has required all major developments on privately-owned sites to undergo a competitive design process. This mandatory step in development approval procedures is unique for an Australian local authority if not globally. By unpacking the evolution of this modern competitive design-injected planning process, we gain better historic insights into localised governance responses and their consequences in the context of the neo-liberal global city.


Bechervaise, Harry, Harry Seidler, John Haskell and John Toon. “Sydney 2030 – A vision for the future. Who needs it? Sydney does!” Architecture Bulletin, August (1991).

Bingham-Hall, Patrick. Olympic Architecture: Building Sydney 2000. Sydney: Watermark Press, 1999.

Buzacott, Stephen. “Urban Design Policy.” Architecture Bulletin, May (1998).

Byrne, John, Bill Chandler and Bruce Echberg, eds. Urban Voices: Celebrating urban design in Australia. Melbourne: Urban Design Forum, 2013.

Council of the City of Sydney. Competitive Design Policy. Sydney: Council of the City of Sydney, 2013. Accessed March 16, 2016. assets/pdf _file/0004/128065/Competitive-design-policy-adopted-09-December-2013.pdf

Council of the City of Sydney. Planning for the Living City. Sydney: Council of the City of Sydney, 2000. Accessed March 16, 2016. http:// documents/APCITY/UNPAN007491.pdf

Council of the City of Sydney. Sydney Spaces. Sydney: Sydney City Council, 1995.

Dick, Tim. “Fixing the Hole.” Sydney Morning Herald, January 8, 2005. Accessed March 16, 2016. the hole/2005/01/07/1104832305310 .html

Freestone, Robert. “Creating a Better Urban Environment in Sydney: The Civic Design Society of the University of New South Wales 1962-1984.” Paper presented to The Fourth International Utzon Symposium, Sydney Opera House, 2014.

Freestone, Robert, Paola Favaro and Sarah Baker. “Sydney 1967-1971: The 1971 City of Sydney Strategic Plan.” In Esportare il centro storico, edited by B. Albrecht and A. Magrin, 347-351. Milan: Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, 2015.

Freestone, Robert, Gethin Davison, Richard Hu, and Sarah Baker. “The Regulation of Excellence: Design Competitions in Sydney.” Paper presented to the State of Australian Cities Conference, Gold Coast, Queensland, 2015.

Genevro, Rosalie. “Design Competitions.” In Excellence in City Design, Mayor’s Institute, 113-115. Washington DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2002.

Gleeson, Brendan and Nicholas Low. Australian Urban Planning: New challenges, new agendas. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2000.

Hu, Richard. “Shaping a Global Sydney: the City of Sydney’s planning transformation in the 1980s and 1990s.” Planning Perspectives 27, no. 3 (2012): 347-368.

Hu, Richard. “Remaking of Central Sydney: Evidence from Floor Space and Employment Surveys in 1991-2006.” International Planning Studies 19, no. 1 (2014): 1-24.

Jahn, Graham. “President’s Report.” Architecture Bulletin, April (2000).

Keating, Paul. “Task Force on Urban Design.” Media release, 3 November 1993. Canberra: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Accessed 16 March 2016. https:// au /release/ transcript-9020

Lochhead, Helen. “Sydney Afresh.” Architecture AU, September 1 1999. Accessed March 16, 2016. http://architectureau .com/ articles/sydney-afresh/

Mayor’s Institute. Excellence in City Design. Washington DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2002.

Morris, Linda. “Harbour Views, City Visions.” Sydney Morning Herald, February 15, 2000.

Neilson, Lyndsay. “The ‘Building Better Cities’ program 1991-96: a nation-building initiative of the Commonwealth Government.” In Australia under Construction: Nation Building Past Present and Future, edited by John Butcher, 83-117. 2008. Accessed March 16, 2016. /titles/australia-and-new-zealand-school-of-government-anzsog-2/auc_citation/pdf-download/

Punter, John. Design Guidelines in American Cities: A Review of Design Policies and Guidance in Five West Coast Cities. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999.

Punter, John. “From the ill-mannered to the iconic: Design regulation in central Sydney 1947–2002.” Town Planning Review 75 (2004): 405-445.

Punter, John. “Urban Design in Central Sydney 1945-2002: Laissez-Faire and Discretionary Traditions in the Accidental City.” Progress in Planning 63 (2005): 11-160.

Ryle, Gerard, Harvey Grennan and Jane Burton Taylor. “Towers of Trouble.” Sydney Morning Herald, December 1, 2001.

Sager, Tore. "Neo-liberal urban planning policies: A literature survey 1990–2010.” Progress in Planning 76 (2011): 147-199.

Searle, Glen. Sydney as a Global City. Sydney: NSW Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, 1996.

Thalis, Philip. “Open Architectural Competitions in Sydney, a Provisional Survey: Part One.” Architecture Bulletin, January-February (2009).

The Prime Minister’s Urban Design Taskforce. Urban Design in Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 1994. Accessed March 16, 2016. content/uploads/2015/08/PMs_Taskforce_on_UD_1994.pdf>.

Webber, Peter. The Design of Sydney: Three Decades of Change in the City Centre. Sydney: Law Book Company, 1988.




How to Cite

Freestone, R., Davison, G., Hu, R., & Baker, S. (2016). Institutionalising Design Excellence in Central Sydney 1988-2000. International Planning History Society Proceedings, 17(7), 165–174.