A new train of thought for Sydney’s regional areas

Sydney is a big city. With only a third of its population, we cover more area than London. And yet, Sydney has only one major centre, with a small number of secondary nodes which have developed along train lines. Most commuters from the suburbs have to travel to the city for work, putting enormous strain on limited infrastructure, creating bottlenecks, standstill traffic and sardine-can trains. My commute to university takes an hour and a half each way, requiring three different modes of transport. On the other hand, London has developed a different approach. The villages which form the city are self-sustained, to the extent where as a tourist it is hard to identify a city centre at all. Each village has a distinct character, with dense housing, retail and commercial combining to create localised pockets. The tube is crowded, yes, but it works. London is also a big city, but it doesn’t feel like one.

So it makes sense that certain outlying areas of Sydney’s suburbs have been designated as growth areas, with the intention of creating town centres to become regional nodes, not unlike London’s villages. Designed as a compact new town, Rouse Hill in Sydney’s north west is one of these areas. Originally planned as a major hub along the proposed extension of the North West Rail link, when the rail link was cancelled by the state government in favour of the controversial metro system, Rouse Hill was left in limbo. Despite the cancellation of the train line, the New Town Centre designed by Allen Jack + Cottier was completed in 2007, and comprises a mix of retail, commercial and medium to high density residential development. The Town Centre is successful and well utilized, but the reliance on cars in the area is extremely high, and as a new town, Rouse Hill is in the process of carving out its own cultural and regional identity. The ideal of a pedestrian and public transport based, European-style village is still a distant pipe dream.

So when our Masters of Architecture design studio, run by Chris Abel, asked us to design the Rouse Hill train station and surrounding precinct, I felt that the best way to approach such a contentious issue was with a healthy dose of optimism. The station site on the western side of the New Town Centre is currently home to a slightly sorry bus terminal, and not much else. The Town Centre, having been conceived with the expectation of a train station, presents large blank walls towards passing traffic on Windsor Road, and lacks a visual identity. My partner Deborah and I felt that Rouse Hill, as a new town, needed a building with gravity, that would have a clear and defining presence in the region and put Rouse Hill on the map. Our proposal was about designing for the future – future growth, future population, and a future railway line.

The Rouse Hill Station Precinct that we proposed is intended to create new ways of thinking about living in regional centres. Centred around the movement of people, the aim of our design is to make the site interactive and permeable for pedestrians, make public transport easy and logical, and create the critical density to encourage an active, locally based lifestyle . Dividing the site into long strips, we closed off the existing road which bisects the site, pushing all vehicular movement to the western strip adjacent to Windsor Road, where we provided a bus station, kiss and ride and taxi drop off points.

By curving the strips at different sectional levels, the sculptural form of the station complex creates ribbons of walkable green roof planes which reinstate the undulating landscape of the surrounding area. The indoor and outdoor spaces of the station complex are integrated into the overall structure, which houses the station, a leisure centre, childcare centre and a retail area, to cater for the young demographic of the area and the projected future population, as well as the proposed commercial development to the north east of the site. Two slim apartment towers are proposed at the southern end of the site, with pedestrian access to the turfed roof space. The towers are visible from a distance, beacons announcing your arrival as you approach the New Town Centre.

The grass-roofed station is designed to be green in more ways than one. The existing New Town Centre is a green development, taking pride in its water and energy saving credentials. Equally, it was important that our development be sustainable, utilizing the grass roof to naturally cool the station complex, providing cross ventilation and a green produce wall sited to screen the blank wall of the cinema complex. The public green space at varying levels above ground can be utilised informally or for community evens such as markets and festivals, or for growing produce. In addition, our concrete superstructure is to be constructed partially from secrete, an environmentally friendly concrete alternative, made from fly ash and other industrial byproducts. The large glazed expanses are to utilize clear glass solar collection technology, a process being developed using thin-film technology to gather solar energy for use in the rest of the building. The Rouse Hill Station precinct is intended to engage people, to inspire them to linger, to wander and to feel a sense of communal ownership.

Essentially, the Rouse Hill Station Precinct design studio was about projected futures, and the future we envisioned for Rouse Hill was one of optimism, a luxury made possible in a new town unrestricted by past mistakes. Of course, one can not be so idealistic as to imagine that the creation of a successful new town will stop people commuting to the city, or solve the problem of urban sprawl onto marginalised land. But it is important that we begin to shift the Australian paradigm from the quarter acre block to a more sustainable future. Unfortunately, Rouse Hill is still waiting for the train, and whether or not they get their rail station remains to be seen. In the mean time, us architecture students will keep the pipe dream alive.

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