FORGET Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth - Sydney must compete with Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai for a shrinking pool of foreign investors and tourists, two leading architects have said.
Philip Cox, who designed some of Sydney's best-known public buildings, says a combination of government ineptitude, complacency and unimaginative design has seen the city fall further behind the big Asian cities in the global marketplace.
Having just completed the $50 million redevelopment of the Orchard Road retail strip in Singapore, Mr Cox has reignited the urban design debate by criticising Sydney's "third-world airport", "non-event public spaces" and the "missed opportunity at Barangaroo".
His comments have drawn swift rebukes from the City of Sydney and the office of the NSW Planning Minister, Kristina Keneally.
Mr Cox said a lack of investment and imagination were turning investors off the city.
"Sydney depends so much upon the harbour to cover up its litany of sins - the only two memorable spaces are the Opera House and Darling Harbour," said Mr Cox, whose works include the National Maritime Museum, the Sydney Exhibition Centre (both at Darling Harbour), and the Olympic Aquatic Centre.
"The rest of the city is an assemblage of street patterns completely lacking in any kind of attractive public urban space. Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are more conscious of the need to be competitive - to reinvent themselves and make themselves attractive."
Visiting German architect Christoph Ingenhoven said Sydney needed more sustainable, mixed-use areas in the city centre.
"[Sydney] must evolve to remain competitive by integrating density in both commercial and living spaces, social spaces and sustainable technologies into the CBD," said Mr Ingenhoven, whose firm is working on two sustainable development projects in the CBD.
Asian governments have poured billions of dollars into major urban design and public transport projects, which are then run by central planning bodies with the power to override local bureaucracies.
Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority is remaking the city as a tropical garden, while the Thai Government is addressing the traffic snarls of Bangkok by extending the city's Skytrain network.
Mr Cox said Sydney was plagued by a division of power between Macquarie Street and Town Hall, with a federal portfolio devoted to Sydney the only solution. "If Sydney fails, Australia fails," he said.
But the City of Sydney councillor, architect and town planner John McInerney said Sydney was a class above Asian capitals. "If you look at the objective tests - the liveability indexes - Sydney is invariably in the top five or 10 in the world, but you rarely find Singapore or KL in that list.
"However, we are considering making George Street a pedestrian-only street. This ties together with our intention to build a city square across from the Town Hall."
The NSW Planning Minister, Kristina Keneally, defended the Barangaroo development, which she said would deliver a vibrant and diverse waterfront space.