Hatch RobertsDay Senior Urban and Place Planner Tom Oliver Payne believes Sydney lacks an urban identity, and needs to create a unique DNA to attract visitors and thrive.

Payne believes the city has struggled to maintain its status as Australia’s premium city for some time, and says Brisbane being named as the preferred city to host the 2032 Olympic Games has exacerbated this.

The planner says the harbour city lacks an urban identity and needs local distinctiveness and storytelling to differentiate itself from other cities. 

“Sydney has a dynamic history and living culture, but it too often fails to create places that speak to its uniqueness. Even I, as someone who grew up here, love Sydney more for its harbour and natural beauty, than its neighbourhoods. Historically, Sydney has struggled to enhance – or even preserve – the distinct qualities that make its localities interesting. All too often, authenticity is wiped out through poor visioning, over-prescriptive planning and ‘Design by Committee’,” he says.

Payne says cities are successful when they become more than just landmarks and have a distinct cultural identity, providing economic benefits. Despite Sydney’s natural beauty and outdoor lifestyle, its about creating something more.

“Great cities provide an experience that makes visitors feel good, creates an emotional connection, and brings people together in public spaces. It becomes a multitude of destinations, rather than just one place to visit. These factors build a distinct identity for the city that is attractive to visitors. Suburbs such as Glebe, Darlinghurst and Newtown – are strong examples of great places we love, due to being inherently walkable – a key element of good urban design – are layered in history and tell a good story, which gives residents a sense of connection and belonging.”

The comments made by Payne align with the NSW Treasury’s NSW 2040 Economic Blueprint, which recognises the importance of having a liveable, connected city with a distinct identity and ‘brand’ that capitalises on the cultural experience to boost the economy.

“It is important that we don’t overlook the benefits of a city’s cultural expression – particularly from an economic standpoint. The effects of the pandemic highlighted how empty Sydney became when airports shut and dozens of industries came to a standstill. As we enter our recovery phase, planners and developers need to ensure new projects promote the true essence and character of Sydney to create a point of difference, attract visitors and drive economic growth.”


Tom Oliver Payne has shared four approaches urban planners can take to enhance Sydney’s identity. Please find them below.

Better understand places at a local level

Deep research and engagement is fundamental to understanding the true essence of a place. Payne says it is a good idea for planners to learn about the history, people, and physical characteristics of a place to identify what makes it unique.

Amplify the distinct qualities that make a place special

Payne recommends enhancing the five-10 aspects that make a place truly interesting, as it will create affection for visitors and local residents. It will also provide a strong differentiator from other cities by drawing on these characteristics.

Co-create with the local community and end users

Through co-creation with residents in the surrounding neighbourhood and understanding what they want to and don’t want to see, we can avoid designing in a silo from the broader community. Undertaking true engagement helps to develop affection and pride for a place – and ultimately helps to make it successful as there will likely be less resistance from the local community. 

Support the curation of place-based storytelling through art and culture

Local art, particularly that of our First Nations, tell vastly different stories about people, places and our history. Art and culture also elicits emotions and are often a huge attraction for visitors when choosing to visit a city. Payne says planners and designers should focus on telling stories about Sydney through various creative arts – in particular, we should support the work of our local artists.


For more information, visit robertsday.com.au.