• August 7, 2021

The Sydney city plan was the first foray into a people-centered design strategy

The developers exploited light regulation with generous floor space layouts and little sense of comprehensive redevelopment with the exception of Australia Square. But haunting mega-renovation plans pushed by the state government were imagined on the outskirts of the city at The Rocks and Woolloomooloo to the dismay of the community.

A May 1967 retirement from the Planning Institute was painfully aware that planning had attracted a negative perception of “conservative, cautious, and finite” rather than “liberal, imaginative, and ongoing.”

Councilors Leo Port and Andrew Briger with a plan for the proposed walkway for Martin Place in November 1972.Credit:Fairfax Media

Things improved when the Civic Reform Association won a majority on the Council to replace an enthusiastic triumvirate of pro-development state-appointed commissioners in late 1969. Anti-labor but progressive, Jim Colman had already been commissioned to report on a new plan which encapsulated Sydney’s problems in the words of JK Galbraith: “private wealth and public misery.”

Councilors Andrew Briger and Leo Port pushed the idea for a strategy. In March 1970, the new Council had more than 20 submissions to complete the $ 100,000 study, a considerable sum for a city planning project. The successful consortium headed by Urban Systems Corporation (USC) was led by George Clarke.

Clarke (1932-2005) had shrewdly positioned himself to take on the task. Hugh Stretton described him as one of those archetypal architect-planners who “thought of planning as first and foremost a mode of social reform.”

Charismatic, articulate, and self-described

Charismatic, articulate, and self-described “urban planner,” George Clarke was the architect of the strategic plan.Credit:

Charismatic, articulate, and self-described “urban planner,” as his Paddington plaque proclaims, Clarke had worked and studied in the United States with mentors such as Lewis Mumford and Kevin Lynch. He returned to Sydney with a deep understanding of urban renewal, conservation, community planning and Lynch’s emphasis on ‘the image of the city’. USC was not only the first substantial planning consultancy formed in post-war Sydney, but the first integrated company covering planning, design, architecture, transportation, and research.

Clarke brought together a large cast to prepare the plan along with architects McConnel Smith and Johnson and management consultants WD Scott. A total of 39 additional specialists that make up the team, including specialists from abroad, created a formidable array of interdisciplinary experience. Many were to later leave their individual marks in Sydney in the 21st century.

In gathering information, hundreds of stakeholders, including unions, churches, charities, businesses, and government departments were invited to make presentations. Many were said to be “in awe” to be approached, but people were “overflowing with ideas.” This community consultation experiment, although rudimentary, was a novel methodology for the time.

Under each of its four guiding aspirations were four thematic policy areas that in turn generated more than 80 priorities for action. The city was divided into five distinct districts (center column, east, southeast, Pyrmont and University) creating more than 30 planning precincts. This was Clarke’s response to address the complexity of the city as an urban system.

Five main management levers were identified: reaffirming the city as the domain of the City Council; drastically cut developers’ floor space rights to encourage taller buildings to provide civic amenities; herald a series of detailed “action plans” for key venues and projects; looking towards a three-year review cycle; and modernization of the urban administration of the city.

The key overarching goals were to limit large-scale commercial development to a central core, discourage vehicular traffic, increase pedestrian-only spaces, promote ring roads, improve the quality of urban design, preserve historic buildings, ensure a greater cultural diversity and preserve the residential villages of the city center. .

They don’t sound revolutionary now, but half a century ago it was an innovative package. The main proposals included the closure of Martin Place to traffic and the rehabilitation of the threatened Queen Victoria building.

Other suggestions betray the high modernism of the time: a World Trade Center; an airport in the city center for new technology aircraft at Central Station; a planetarium for Ultimo; an investigation of the monorails; thousands of peripheral parking spaces; and “traffic-separated pedestrian environments” with a predilection for tunnels, bridges, arcades and moving sidewalks in contrast to the modern paradigm of walkable streets.

Architect Robin Boyd astutely recognized a scheme that sought to balance inventiveness and practicality without irritating the feathers. This was achieved largely supported by a vigorous public relations campaign. The most outspoken critic was Harry Seidler, who identified a “toothless tiger” that highlighted the problem of a strategy of ideas rather than a plan of controls.


Perversely, the Askin state government belatedly published the city’s statutory plan in development since the 1940s, just days before the CSSP was introduced. Developers preferred its more lenient rules which were expanded, creating a flood of development applications. The misalignment was not completely corrected until the Environmental Assessment and Planning Act of 1979, which incorporated many of the planning tools provided by the CSSP.

By then, the plan had already been revised twice, green bans had come and gone, a state estate law was in place, and the Department of Urban and Regional Development had injected Commonwealth interest into the city. The planning train went on. Even George Clarke, who had exported his formula to the Adelaide City Planning Studio in 1973-74 to solidify his national profile, had had enough: moving to Bali and a traveling life as an international design guru.

The CSSP remained “by far her greatest achievement” according to Elizabeth Farrelly and in and out of her recent book Kill sydney as an illustrated benchmark as Sydney’s “first foray into pedestrian-oriented planning strategy, tree planting, street awareness, and friendly people.”

The plan was a bestseller, educated the community on planning, relied on evidence-based research and consultation, introduced an official register of heritage sites in local government, pioneered site-based planning and mechanisms. plan review, promoted design review procedures that have been implemented lately. elevated to high science, and helped ignite a governance revolution underpinning the city’s current leadership in planning and design guided by its own Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategy, which is proving to be equally enduring and influential.

Great architecture produces tangible icons evaluated for their physical presence and functionality. Planning works through a different modus operandi of protocols and coordinative processes conceived in the public interest. The 1971 CSSP defined a form of planning excellence long before the awards were presented. But a plaque will do.

Robert Freestone is Professor of Planning at the University of New South Wales.

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