This paper explores the history of design regulation and intervention in the City of Sydney (the CBD of Sydney for the purposes of this paper) and its recent remarkable shift from design agnosticism to the pursuit of design excellence. It reviews the distinctive history of development regulation in the city since 1912 and explores the interplay between planners and developers in the evolution of control, with the State imposing a strongly neoliberal regime to ensure the CBD continued to act as a national 'growth engine'. It closely examines the shift to a much more design-conscious planning regime, particularly the required use of design competitions on major schemes. It questions whether Sydney has succumbed to the notion of a 'design fetish', a local variant of the aestheticisation of city planning that characterises post-industrial, post-modern, consumption-oriented, global cities. It concludes by arguing that the new preoccupation with ensuring the 'well-mannered and the iconic' is long overdue in Sydney, and that public realm improvements spurred by the Olympics are an important adjunct to this policy. But careful control needs to be more deeply embedded in general planning practices to consolidate the achievements of the last decade, particularly in a newly enlarged city post-2004.
In the story of the so-called Rum Rebellion it is always Bligh who is the bad guy, and while we would never want another Captain Bligh we might at least allow that there is no one else in our history who had the balls to stand up against the opportunism and cronyism of the Rum Corps or those spiritual descendants who the libel laws forbid us to name.
The modern CBD is their living monument, a tribute to an élite which places very little value on the public good.
If there were not that opera house and that harbour just down the road you might accept that you were somewhere provincial and uninspired, but Sydney is not uninspired and on the edges of the CBD, on the rocks at Bennelong Point, you get some glimpse not only of what we were, but what we might yet become. (Carey, 2000, 116-17)
Sydney: planning in context
For most westerners Sydney is one of the world's most imageable cities with its spectacular harbours, and its icons of the Harbour Bridge, downtown skyline, and the Sydney Opera House that have acted as backdrops to the spectacles of the 1988 Australian Bicentennial, the 2000 Olympics, and the 2001 Millennium flotillas and fireworks. But as the opening quote testifies, it is a city that has often squandered its natural advantages, succumbing to spectacularly ordinary commercial development that has destroyed much of its heritage, darkened its narrow streets, blocked views of the harbour and overshadowed its parks and public spaces. Peter Carey describes it as 'a vulgar crooked convict town' (Carey 2000, 2) and one of his themes is the subversion of town planning throughout the city's history. John Birmingham rails against corruption in the city and the 'profoundly antihuman, brutal and vaguely Orwellian schemes' (Birmingham, 1999, 235-36) that are characteristic of modernist Sydney. The city's planning historian, Paul Ashton, takes a similar line describing Sydney as
an accidental city, a city which emerged from a complex web of power relations without recourse to holistic planning ... [a site of] ... constant piecemeal redevelopment since the second half of the nineteenth century. (Ashton, 1995, 10)
And yet, as Carey suggests, the City of Sydney manages to shrug off its largely humdrum urban landscape through its spectacular setting, its dynamism and, in the City of Sydney proper, a new-found vitality.
Statutory planning has a short but complex history in the city, and has had limited success in creating a high-quality urban environment worthy of the city's spectacular setting. Laissez-faire traditions have prevailed right through to the mid-1990s as city planning has struggled to establish itself against a strong business and property development lobby, and a New South Wales State Government always ready to intervene to ensure that the State's economic growth machine is not adversely affected by any proposed controls. …