A recent study on the City of Sydney’s mandatory design competitions for major public and private property developments in the CBD has revealed that the process has raised the level of design outcomes.

The results of the study were recently presented by Robert Freestone, professor of planning in the Faculty of Built Environment at a special event organised by Cities @ UNSW in partnership with CTBUH (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat).

New planning provisions introduced in 2000 by the City of Sydney aimed to ensure ‘design excellence’ in new building developments in the CBD.

Introduced under the City’s Local Environmental Plan, the new planning rules required all public and private developments in the CBD to go through the competitive design process subject to meeting one of three conditions: height (55m), site area (1500m²) or capital value ($100 million). The submissions were assessed by a panel that chose the best from a minimum of three designs.

Since then until 2017, 46 proposals have received planning approval, representing a total investment of more than $7 billion and producing nearly 2 million square metres of commercial floor space. There’s no doubt that the new planning process has yielded the desired dividends in design excellence – nearly two-thirds of the completed projects have received major industry and professional awards.

The research findings were published recently in a book ‘Designing the Global City: Design Excellence, Competitions and the Remaking of Central Sydney’, co-authored by Professor Freestone, Gethin Davison, lecturer in UNSW Built Environment’s City Planning and Design, and University of Canberra’s Professor Richard Hu.

At the talk – Designing the Global City – Freestone summarised the findings of the study, which appraised 26 projects completed under the revised planning provisions over the past two decades and interviewed 60 people associated with the process.

Architectural design competitions are typically conducted for public buildings; however, mandating design competitions for private buildings appears to be unique to Sydney, with Freestone describing the City of Sydney’s ‘compare, critique and commission’ model for private development as “truly pioneering and innovative”.

“We identified three factors that led the way for the innovation we saw from the Sydney City Council at the turn of the century. One was a wider predisposition to design and design quality from the 1980s onwards. The second was a precedent of design competitions for securing excellence, primarily for public buildings like the Opera House but also for private development.

And the third was the evolution of better governance at City Council which, under independent lord mayor Frank Sartor, was moving towards a more progressive and enlightened approach and had also adopted the Living City Strategy in 1994.

“I think what Frank Sartor and his team introduced all those years ago is just one element of a wider package of reform that has become a lasting and very interesting urban design regime. It appears to be an internationally unique system that deserves nurturing.”

The event also featured a panel discussion led by Professor Helen Lochhead, Dean of UNSW Built Environment. Panel members included Clare Swan (Director of Ethos Urban), Philip Vivian (Director of Bates Smart and President CTBUH), Louise Mason (CEO Commercial Property of Stockland) and Graham Jahn AM (Director of City Planning, Development and Transport, City of Sydney).

Image: Inspire Property Group