The NSW Minister for Planning, Rob Stokes, has recently announced a draft Architecture and Design Policy for NSW with a particular focus on ensuring that good design is part of Sydney’s growth.

Government architect Peter Poulet will lead the development of the final policy through the involvement of communities, industry and professionals, but there are some critical issues to be debated before good design is mandated on us all.

The history of design-led approaches to planning cities has many examples of visionary concepts that evolved from a belief in modernity. Think of Le Corbusier’s plans to rebuild Paris as towers in a park, or Oscar Neimeier’s new city of Brazilia, or even the designed city of Canberra. All have well-meaning relationships between buildings and landscape but they also miss the chaos and interaction American writer Jane Jacobs calls for in her book The Death and Life of American Cities.

But maybe these big vision design led approaches have evolved into a sensitive and iterative bottom up approach to design as advocated by Danish urbanist Jan Gehl in his book Cities for People.

Ultimately, of course, cities need good design rather than bad design. In launching the new draft policy, Stokes said “good design is vital to Sydney growing successfully into the future.” The aspirations are good, but a quick read of the government architect’s document begins to open up the difficulties of turning good words into good deeds that lead to quality results.

The threshold question is who determines what good design is. The document sets out to answer this by saying design excellence “affects how spaces and places function,” but this still seems to leave the interpretation to the reader.

There is a great need for design quality, particularly as Australian cities become more compact and densities increase through population growth. Communities will benefit from a more compact urban form with quality public spaces, well-designed buildings and the principles outlined in the Architecture and Design Policy for NSW will give some guidance.

But who is it that ticks off that design quality has been achieved? It’s possible that council planning officers will end up interpreting standards and manuals in literal ways that stifle innovation. The Sydney Opera House, for instance, broke all the planning manuals that had anticipated a flat roof. The government’s best approach, and this is outlined in the Architecture and Design Policy for NSW, is through design competitions with a bonus uplift, design review panels with a range of expert. There is also, of course, the requirement that only qualified architects can design key projects, as outlined in the government’s planning policy for apartment buildings above three storeys.

Ultimately, we are likely to get good buildings if good architects are the designers. The same occurs with the Archibald Prize for portrait painting. There are no manuals that the artists must follow to produce a good portrait, but a brilliant artist with an interesting subject is more likely to win.

Design quality also has a dilemma when it comes to balancing contextual building designs that fit into the local character with distinctive and visually interesting solutions in special places. Some architects are good at contextual fit while others are good at sculptural statements. Should Sydney develop a distinct Sydney style (perhaps white flowing forms) or should we reflect the best of global styles? After all, Sydney is Australia’s global city. Should we learn from the comfortable European cities of the past or from the dynamic energy of the fast growing Asian cities?

The release of the draft Architecture and Design Policy opens up all of these debates, and they are important for Sydney’s future. As the city evolves from a suburban model from the last century into a more urban model in this century, the quality of the design of the built environment and of the public domain becomes more important. The NSW approach to managing design quality could lead to similar policies following the various government architects in other states in Australia. Ultimately, good design will come more from innovation than from regulation, so too much red tape applied to the design process is likely to be counter productive.

There is, however, a political agenda at stake here. As politicians try to calm down resident action groups who are upset about change and what they see as over-development, they are increasingly defaulting to the need for quality design to make the changed environment palatable. And to give the community confidence that design quality will occur, they are turning to policies, guidelines and manuals that demonstrate that results will follow.

The problem is that the guidelines and manuals are used by planning authorities as their bible to ensure compliance with design quality requirements. The NSW draft Architecture and Design Policy will presumably go through discussion and testing before it is finalised, but it is critical that it becomes an enabler of design quality and not a controller.