Public transport projects have accelerated the productivity and liveability of cities for centuries. The recent rail renaissance in Australian cities has seen billions of dollars pumped into heavy and light rail projects, and station precincts have underpinned the urban renewal and development of significant knowledge-centred and mixed-use residential precincts. Whether level crossing removal in Melbourne, new transit-oriented and over station developments in Sydney or a new river crossing in Brisbane, these city-shaping projects have led the transformation of our cities, one precinct at a time.
However, in the last two years, extended lockdowns and work-from-home arrangements mean businesses have transitioned to agile office arrangements, and people have shifted their lifestyle to take advantage of flexible working arrangements. CBD office vacancy rates have risen, businesses have reduced floor space, and while the CBD is not dead, questions are mounting about the role and function of city centres and precincts in the future.
So, will station precincts continue to be the same potent catalyst for urban renewal? We sat down with our Urbanism + Planning leads including planners, landscape architects and urban designers to explore the key trends for station precincts, such as the diversity of land use, qualities of place and the role green infrastructure and ‘people-first’ places.
- Matthew Rolley, Practice Leader, Urbanism + Planning, Australia New Zealand
- Amy Child, Practice Leader, Urbanism + Planning, Victoria and South Australia
- Zac Cvitkovic, Associate Director, Urban Design, Victoria and South Australia
- Alastair Leighton, Technical Director, Cities, Queensland and Western Australia
- Stephen Callaghan, Technical Director, Design + Planning, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory
What trends and drivers are having the biggest impact on station precinct planning?
Answer: Zac Cvitkovic Rail precincts offer high levels of accessibility which investors have sought to capitalise on by maximising commercial and residential yields, while minimising costs associated with the provision of further amenities, features or destinations. Societal shocks, whether related to financial markets, climate or public health, are a reminder that reliance on a single asset or feature increases risks. The COVID-19 pandemic, a major disruptor in how people access and use our cities, has highlighted the importance of mixed-use, agile precincts.
Diversification is key to creating resilient precincts that can continue to attract interest and retain value. This includes focusing on the uniqueness of each precinct to make it distinct from other places, as well as creating diverse components that help it maintain a vibrant life, and therefore value, throughout the day, week and year.
Answer: Stephen Callaghan Rail/metro is the heavy lifter of any public transport network, and user expectations are for an engaged and informed journey door-to-door. Traditionally, it has been about the station and ride experience, but ‘affordable luxury’ and an easy door-to-door experience’ are vital in achieving mode shift. The precinct's quality, function, and amenity are an integral part of the customer experience and need to be considered from the outset and stewarded through the entire design and delivery process.
A key driver we are seeing is green infrastructure integration and how it is adding value and driving better outcomes for station precincts across the globe. Green spaces offer several benefits; they provide common spaces, which are important in humanising cities, as well as positive environmental impacts and building resilience. Green infrastructure plays a vital role in creating positive microclimate enhancements to help ‘turn down the heat’ in precinct areas, a key consideration for many Australian and New Zealand clients in planning future precincts that are resilient to a warm climate.
Answer: Alastair Leighton Think about the current and future trends impacting station precinct development raises questions about how we will ensure stations are woven into the fabric of a city in the future.
Does the opportunity, risk, scale and complexity suggest that an independent, empowered authority should be given special powers to drive integration for new 'precincts'? This way we could ensure delivery of a public space and an environmental setting that will offer climate comfort and attract public support. I think we need to challenge the concept of the 'precinct' approach and ensure stations are not delivered with hard and visible edges. The most critical consideration will always be the place and what it needs to achieve a legacy outcome for the community it serves.
What do you see as the biggest risks and opportunities relating to station precinct design, planning and delivery?
Answer: Matthew Rolley At a time when the feasibility of commercial and residential development is a risk, the role and function of the station precinct in creating a vibrant mixed-use destination is increasingly important. This means we need to closely consider the role and function of precincts and their potential to deliver social and community outcomes like tourism venues, and social and affordable housing. Station precincts offer the possibility to create communities and places that meet the needs of local people alongside ‘destination’ qualities that can be activated 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
With this renewed focus on ‘people-first’ station precincts designed to serve and enhance the public's experience, there is an opportunity to attract infrastructure investment. Precincts should create places that reflect the community’s history, are accessible and connected to the surrounding community, are active spaces that encourage people to stop, stay and spend time and money. They should be shady, comfortable and full of delight.
Answer: Zac Cvitkovic Rail projects are complex, even in their simplest forms, so making them inherently more complex only increases risks. New stations should deliver a new or renewed place, and demonstrate value to the surrounding community.
However, building structural infrastructure for development as part of a rail project sometimes occurs years ahead of potential development investment decisions. Without an understanding of future market needs, there is the threat of over-capitalisation or potentially complex ownership and maintenance arrangements. A more sophisticated approach to making land available for community assets and development surrounding rail stations would deliver better precincts, more affordably and with less upfront cost and risk.
Answer: Amy Child A common challenge and risk is balancing functional requirements of the transit asset with good urban outcomes. Integrating other transport modes, such as bus interchanges and car parking, can significantly impact the precinct design – an ill-designed precinct can lead to poor urban realm outcomes. Embedding innovative design solutions which allow for more efficient use of land in space-constrained precincts, such as dynamic bus stands, which reduce the need for extensive bus interchange infrastructure, may reduce capital and operational costs for the asset owner and lead to a better outcome for the precinct user.
Which lessons learned from previous projects could be valuable to future station precinct developments?
Answer: Zac Cvitkovic Communities value and trust landscape far more than built form. We watch time and again as open spaces, streetscapes and recreational features are universally applauded by both existing and new residents and users, whereas feedback can be mixed on the architectural merits of a project. We saw this response in the early public scepticism of the Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal project, locally known as 'Skyrail', until proof of new and improved open spaces was delivered and the built form – no matter its scale – became a backdrop. Green infrastructure provisioning is a focus for the community and should be a high priority in the design process, rather than an element added to fill leftover spaces.
Answer: Amy Child Station precincts have evolved from a place to travel through, to a place to travel to. One of the ways to achieve this kind of engagement is by using an anchor tenant to boost the status and attractiveness of a destination.
Once an undesirable space, London’s Kings Cross station has undergone significant investment to deliver a world-class precinct. Google has based their London headquarters there, adding vibrancy as a world-leading technology company and an ‘anchor tenant’ in practice.
In Melbourne, existing well-established anchor tenants, located at many of the proposed Suburban Rail Loop stations, such as Box Hill and Monash, provide a solid building block to grow the next generation of successful precincts.
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