This study injects urban design into global city discourse which frequently brushes over the micro-production of the built environment. Yet at this scale, the adaptation of design strategies and controls as a neoliberalist policy tools to shape a global city becomes apparent. The study focuses on the Sydney experience. It analyses the urban design elements in two key strategic plans for the City of Sydney – the CBD of global Sydney – to explore thematic and methodological continuity and change in the pursuit of design excellence. The two plans – Central Sydney Strategy (1988) and Sustainable Sydney 2030 (2008) – bookend the two critical decades in Sydney’s rise to global status. Comparing them reveals an ascending importance of urban design translated into statutory regulations for design excellence. Thematically, the concerns of urban design moved from a singular economic-centric objective to a multiplicity of objectives including global competitiveness, environmental sustainability, innovative capacity, and physical and social connectivity. Methodologically, the urban design elements moved from a prescriptive, architectonic, elitist and intuitive approach to one of urban design as public policy, as place making, and as process of research, consultation and engagement. These findings underpin a new contextual understanding of the evolution of urban design policies for a global CBD at the turn of the century.