Friday, 20 June 2014

The Role of Railway Stations in Place-making

On Wednesday 18 June I attended a workshop organised by John Worthington and Bright Pryde of the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) on this topic at the offices of Space Syntax in London. The ITC is Britain's independent research charity committed to improving transport and land use policy. It is currently reviewing proposals for High Speed Rail (HSR).

                                           Ariel view of London Bridge Station redevelopment

I was pleased to be invited to participate in the workshop as I have recently been giving a lot of thought to the role of stations being improved or redeveloped as a catalyst for the regeneration of the areas surrounding them as part of my work for Team London Bridge to develop a destination brand strategy for the London bridge area in central London. In this area a central challenge is how best to realise and spread the benefits of the redevelopment of London bridge Station.

                               Proposed design for reuse of railway arches at London Bridge Station

John, a Commissioner of the ITC, set the scene for the workshop by identifiying three themes of relevance to station identity and placemaking from its work to date on HSR:

  1. The station as a gateway and focus for innovation for the city and its sub region, now a characteristic of how SNCF, the French rail company, now approaches station development.
  2. The station as a place of connection - not only to other cities and places but also as a connector of surrounding neighbourhoods within the same city.
  3. The station as a catalyst for regeneration in the surrounding neighbourhoods and along the transport corridors connected to the station.

                               Sketch of proposed improvements at den Hague Station in the Netherlands
                                             cited as a good example of railway station area renewal

In a wide ranging discussion that followed John’s scene setting I was particularly struck by the following points:

  1. Camilla Ween (an architect with Goldsteing Ween) reminded us that along the route of Crossrail  in London there were now thirty stations where development plans are being prepared to capture the value and opportunity of new station development for their surrounding areas and argued that the stakeholders in this process need to have a strong vision of what the place around the stations might become in order for this value to be realised, and that local stakeholders need to be brought together to create and share an aspiration and the benefits of joint action. She also shared that an exhibition on Crossrail station development proposals is on at the New London Architecture gallery.
  2. This led John to float the idea of the formation of "master-developers" for station area development and wondered aloud who might be best placed to take on this role - Network rail, the local authority, developers, major landowners, or some combination of them and others - or, as is the case at the Old Oak Common development in West London, a more formal development arrangement supported by the mayor of London. As you might expect there were a variety of views on who the players might be but there was agreement that some form of development partnership was required to create and capture the wider value by taking responsibility for the development and not just leaving it to chance. A good example of this kind of approach is the development of the station and surrounding area at the Hague in the Netherlands.
  3. A number of participants had experience of major station redevelopment and improvement, notably at Kings Cross and St Pancras in London  who stressed that station improvements offered opportunities to open up formerly derelict and unconnected areas for development to provide much needed facilities, services and connectivity to previously isolated areas. 
  4. Another participant reminded us that we need to be fundamentally clear about the functions of stations, particularly major termini and exchange (or hub) stations. The y have traditionally been seen as fundamentally and functionally as places to get on and off trains - full stop! Now we are discussing them as places to access the offer of surrounding areas and to become part of the offer of those areas and this is very different from the way in which they have been seen and planned in the past. 
  5. An interesting and important point that had escaped my attention to date was made by Peter Headicar, an ITC Commissioner, that outside of central London and the major metropolitan cities, the issues we were discussing  were not being considered in smaller urban settlements with the same degree of enthusiasm or seriousness and exemplified his point by reference to the difficulties of improving the station in Oxford where he lives.