Higher density neighbourhoods within walking distance of a train station, combined with the right planning policies, are the key to sustainably solving our housing crises and planning issues.

Within the next 20 years, just under half (45 per cent) of Sydney’s population could be built within walking distance of a train station, creating up to 327,000 dwellings in highly accessible locations with great amenities.

This would create a massive $9.3 billion economic windfall for the state, along with $16.3 billion in financial value through land appreciation and rezoning.

With the right policies in place, such as long-term 99-year leases and a broad-based land tax, this additional value can be leveraged to support more affordable housing, as well as more investment in state and local infrastructure.

The findings come from a report titled Rethinking Station Precincts, which was released this week by Hassell and the Committee for Sydney, drawing on insights from experts at AECOM, Frecklington, Grimshaw, Mecone and SGS Economics and Planning.

However, planning experts and the report’s authors caution that it’s not enough to simply plonk massive high-density residential apartment towers next to train stations. It’s important to create high-quality walkable neighbourhoods with a mix of uses, including retail, office, recreation, civic and open public spaces.

The report comes as a series of major rail infrastructure projects, including Metro Southwest, Metro West and the Western Sydney Airport Metro projects, are expanding the size of Sydney’s Train and Metro networks to 338 stations.

A more sustainable way to plan a city

Committee for Sydney chief executive Gabriel Metcalf told The Fifth Estate using the network of rail stations as the place to focus growth creates benefits both for residents as well as the broader community.

“The benefits for people who get to live there are very clear. You get the chance to get around by train and have access to all the city has to offer that way. You can save a lot of money on not having to buy a car for everyone in the household and not having to spend so much of your paycheque on petrol. 

“The benefits to the public are also really clear. This is the solution for housing supply. That does not make Sydney traffic problems worse.”

“In an era when we’re trying to do everything possible to act on climate change, this is one of the big moves that people in Sydney can embrace.”

Gabriel Metcalf, Committee for Sydney

While the report accepts that some greenfield development on the suburban fringe will still take place, having more development around stations prevents the environmental problems caused by car-dependent low-density suburban spawl. 

“When you build traditional car dependent suburban sprawl, you’re locking everyone into a lifestyle that involves a lot of driving. So the traditional low density sprawl model is very wasteful of land and very wasteful of energy,” Mr Metcalf says.

“By contrast, when you cluster growth into compact formats around rail, energy use is much lower per capita, there is much less driving and, of course, the land footprint of the development is much smaller as well.

“In an era when we’re trying to do everything possible to act on climate change. This is one of the big moves that people in Sydney can embrace.”

Don’t forget the “missing middle”

In Australia, we often tend to think of “density” as being a binary between the high density towers of our central business districts and the low-density detached single family homes in the suburbs.

This binary thinking often leaves out the medium-scale buildings that fall between these two extremes. These include townhouses, mixed-use buildings such as shops with flats or offices on the second floor, or smaller three-to-five story apartment buildings.

It’s a point made by Associate Professor Crystal Legacy, who is an urban planning researcher at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne School of Design.

“Sometimes when we talk about density, particularly in the media, we attribute it to high rise towers. That exacerbates the fear of this kind of development, which is actually a lot more nuanced and complex, and we need to go into the nuance.”

“Density often gets lumped into or associated with high rise towers. But density can be medium rise, as well. So there’s different scales in which to talk about density.”

Quality homes in walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods is the key

One of the important nuances of planning around transport is getting the balance right between the starting points of journeys (such as residential properties) and destinations (such as schools, shops, offices, universities and civic spaces).

A train station that is surrounded by residential buildings will tend to be used less than one in a vibrant mixed-use neighbourhood that includes a mix of destinations as well.

“It’s not just about having density near a train station, and that’s it. It’s about creating amenities. Creating other opportunities for services, commercial opportunities as well as recreational opportunities from open or green space,” Associate Professor Legacy says.

“Sometimes when we talk about density, particularly in the media, we attribute it to high rise towers. That exacerbates the fear of this kind of development, which is actually a lot more nuanced and complex, and we need to go into the nuance.”

Associate Professor Crystal Legacy

It’s a point echoed in the report, which notes that “apartment living without having a mix of shops, parks and services nearby is missing out on the point of urbanism”. 

Mr Metcalf says the aim of the report isn’t just to get more development around rail stations, but to also encourage better quality development.

“While we often lead our arguments by focusing on housing supply. It’s just as important to us to focus other uses around the rail stations. That includes jobs. But it also includes community infrastructure like schools and hospitals. The goal is to create mixed use walkable communities.”

Interestingly, in light of the NSW Planning Minister’s controversial decision to drop changes to the state’s Apartment Design Guide, the report highlights that “badly-designed apartments will not be attractive to people, even if they are located in a fully mixed-use and walkable neighbourhood”.

Breaking down the silo between transport and planning

Traditionally, Australian governments have tended to view transport and planning as two separate issues. Yet, as the report points out, the biggest benefits come from planning precincts together with new transport infrastructure.

Beyond just enabling private development, Mr Metcalf says precinct-level planning enables you to think about things such as the best locations for density.

“In order to make really great places that will stand the test of time and become well loved Sydney neighbourhoods, it’s important to plan at the scale of the neighbourhood and not just view this as enabling single buildings. 

“When you look at when you plan at the neighbourhood scale, you’re able to understand what’s missing, whether that is a park, adding connections over the tracks or a school.”

But what about the other half?

Creating the finely-grained walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods envisioned by the report would be fantastic for the 45 per cent of Sydneysiders living within walking distance of a train station. But what about the other 55 per cent?

“The other thing we want to think about when we think about transport and density is that it’s not just about the train, it’s also about how people get to the train. We tend to associate getting there to the car and unfortunately, the car takes up a lot of space,” Associate Professor Legacy says.

“We don’t want train stations that are perhaps surrounded by some density but also a lot of car parks, because that doesn’t create a liveable or sustainable equitable environment. We need to think about the role of active transport, so bicycles and pedestrian movements, and also increasingly micro mobility.

Mr Metcalf adds that it’s important to treat rail stations as hubs for the surrounding community. That means paying attention to the network of cycle lanes, as well as bus services that feed into those rail stations.

More than just train stations

Bringing together these best practices for transport and planning, train stations can become more than a place that commuters go to travel to the city. They can be the hubs of our civic life.

“Thinking about planning in a more integrated fashion or more holistic fashion surfaces some other questions around what are we actually building and for whom are we building it for?” Associate Professor Legacy says.

“We have to move beyond the idea that it’s about getting people to the train station and then onto the train. We need to think about what else these spaces can become, and how these spaces can become our places for interaction and encounter.”

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  1. Everyone is saying parks are really important in increasingly density neighbourhoods. We are not seeing any evidence of parks being provided, we are seeing micro “open spaces” that are typically a collection of rain gardens or retention basins, utilities like substations, green lawns with no deep soil to grow big trees, because we have tanks or car parks underneath. These spaces are often overshadowed, have architectonic structures that provide little in the way of function, and nice planting . They may enhance visual amenity or restorative values, but provide very limited opportunities for social, physical or environmental activities desperately needed by residents.

  2. This is long overdue and has been embraced already in other parts of Australia. But property developers still think in terms of high rise towers instead of the walkable mix of 4-5 storey mixed use city blocks of ,2,3&4 bedroom apts with community facilities including open space in the middle, metro stations/ kindergartens/ crèches…..Think Barcelona Paris Munich Amsterdam…. We don’t have to have Chicago or New York as the model.

  3. I’ve been saying this for years! Each train station needs to become a business hub with shops, restaurants, apartments businesses & entertainment, eventually over time turning the whole system into a subway. This could be achieved in each capital city allowing for more density than wiping out natural habitat.