Redevelopment of areas within walking distance of rail stations can be more intense and will produce the best returns, says Dr Ying Jin of the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction.
Successful cities worldwide face immense challenges accommodating further population and job growth. Prosperous suburbs which used to attract the bulk of such growth now face tough environmental constraints as well as local sentiments against more expansion.
In recent years, development has been steered towards inner cities. The UK exemplifies this shift: after many decades of suburban expansion, growth recommenced in the urban cores during the 1990s. In 2001-2011, population in the inner cities grew the fastest among all areas.
"At San Francisco’s Transbay we found the density of office and housing development could be much higher than hitherto considered in London"
However, easy sites in inner cities are running out, with redevelopment there requiring ever larger upfront spend on environmental remediation and infrastructure. Where can growth occur next? In my view, areas within walking distance of main rail and metro stations deserve the closest attention and scrutiny.
Rail and metro provide fast, reliable and low carbon access to jobs, housing and businesses. The last decade has seen major investment in rail and metro across rich countries, including the UK, and some major developing economies. In G7, rail now receives nearly a third of all land transport investment per year. However, practical difficulties have forced planners to ignore the simple fact that rail access is at its most effective within walking distance of stations – so far, successful at-scale regeneration and redevelopment around stations are the exception rather than the rule.
Should we be more proactive in making significantly more room for growth around stations? In my view, this is an area that deserves more attention. At the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) we have developed new research to enable this potential new growth.
"At London’s King’s Cross Central, a flexible masterplan with many embedded options proved to be the key to weathering the 2008 financial crisis".
First, we have extended our city region growth forecast model to test the configuration of city regions typical in the UK and find clear and significant overall benefits for focusing more growth within walking distance of the main stations. There is a good chance that very dense development around stations will bring large benefits. The costs and benefits for a particular area will depend on local circumstances and redevelopment plans, and those details can be added into the model in order for local communities to test alternative growth scenarios.
Second, for project programming we have developed a future options approach which allows the redevelopment to start small but expand at relatively low costs and adapt to inevitable financial and political cycles. Current planning and design practices already allow for certain flexibility, but for significant long-term growth prospects it is beneficial to consider embedding a much wider range of options.
Third, by compiling case studies from successful major regeneration and redevelopment projects, we can inspire and validate the research. For instance, at San Francisco’s Transbay we found the density of office and housing development could be much higher than hitherto considered in London; at London’s King’s Cross Central, a flexible masterplan with many embedded options proved to be the key to weathering the 2008 financial crisis which in turn helped create a thriving and inclusive development (Figure 2).
By working with the British Standards Institute, leading practitioners in masterplanning, property development, infrastructure engineering and urban design, we are able to use all these insights to inform the creation of new standards. These will help shape future redevelopment and regeneration projects around stations which will create repeatable solutions for local communities and project promoters.
Of course station area development is not the only option for accommodating new growth – in the UK more than 80% of the population live in suburbs. However, the station areas could potentially make an equally significant impact – not only through providing vibrant local foci of business and services with fast connections to major metropolitan centres, but also through absorbing a share of the demand for greenfield expansion – that is, if there is the will and the means to make more room for growth around stations.