The pursuit of high-quality urban design through the planning process is made challenging by two key problematics. First, control over the decisions that produce or alter the built environment is differentially distributed across numerous public and private agents. Second, there is little agreement about what ‘good’ urban design is and how it is best pursued. Recognizing this, the focus in this paper is on how these two problematics are being tackled through a unique design control initiative in Sydney, Australia. This initiative requires that all major property developments are subject to a design competition before they can be approved. The paper reports the findings of 41 stakeholder interviews and appraisals of 25 projects completed under these provisions. These findings indicate that mandated design competitions have helped force a general raising of urban design quality by re-distributing decision-making control and enabling a broad but non-prescriptive approach to the regulation of design excellence.