The Art of Context-Sensitive Station Design

It is critical we get the infrastructure investment just right by neither under-designing nor over-designing. So how do we balance 'cookie-cutter' approaches with context-sensitive designs? Diane Legge Kemp, Vice President, CallisonRTKL, discusses.

Chicago Trains

"We need to design in a way that is relevant to the context of the station’s surrounds and is responsive to stakeholders, to create an important piece of civic architecture that is not only functional but also a significant player within the urban visual realm."

All too often - particularly in China - we see the exact same railway station placed at every stop. Yet, on the flip-side, and often in the United States, we see ‘unique’ over-designed station solutions used which often break the budget and consequently discourage investment in transit.

In an age when both new and existing transit networks face a scarcity of public funding, it is critical we get the infrastructure investment just right; neither under-designed nor over-designed.

Colloquially known as “cookie cutter” designs, a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach to solving transport problems and functionally on sites with varying socio-economic conditions and differing physical contexts, is no longer cost-effective. Such an approach simply leads us to regurgitating the same mistakes in transport connectivity, safety, and security. These are the kinds of stations locals like to call “utilitarian” - designed to be useful or practical, as opposed to attractive.

Yet on the other hand, building every station like a “Swiss watch” and forgetting functional on the way to becoming “award-winning” is not the way to go either. When these stations fall flat, the complaints are often that they are not practical and in some instances, are labelled “visually sterile”. Though, there obviously there are exceptions to this, when we see beautiful design and functionally colliding perfectly.

Instead of “cookie cutter” and “Swiss watch” designs, we need to design in a way that is relevant to the context of the station’s surrounds and is responsive to stakeholders, all while seeking to create an important piece of civic architecture that is not only functional but also a significant player within the urban visual realm.

Flinders Station

A good way to do this is to use a ‘kit-of-parts’, where colors, materials and building components are standardized but not the actual design of the architecture. Standardization of components helps make maintenance and replacement simpler, while saving money due to an economy of scale in stockpiling parts. This kit-of-parts approach allows for us to meet design challenges and solve technical issues while still allowing for a great deal of creativity that is within budget. We have seen this approach in Hong Kong and Chicago, where there are numerous examples of ‘kit-of-part’ stations in a wide variety of sizes.  

While this approach is not necessarily a new idea, it is relevant to new transit systems, lines and stations in either the planning or design stages. But to make it work it is essential to ensure early inclusion of the ‘kit-of-parts’ into the design process.

As mentioned, each station and line within a network should be built within the context of the community it is located, therefore, a ‘kit-of-parts’ approach must be used creatively to make this visual connection. The fundamental key to context-responsive design is the early involvement of stakeholders - transit users, business and property owners and citizens – they should all be involved in the design and decision-making process. In the USA, this is called the context-sensitive design process, where design professionals first listen to stakeholders’ concerns and interests, respond to these as they create the design, and then build a consensus for a particular design that symbolizes the values and character of the community.

The point, this is not just about the station; instead it is about the design of the community in which a station sits. While it is important to get the design of the station correct, it is equally as important to integrate the mobility network of the community, including walking, biking, bus, taxi, and driving. These stations should make it easier to move about in our daily lives, connecting us with our families, work, schools, and places of recreation and culture. Only when we perfect the art of context-sensitive design meeting functionality, will we truly connect a station with its people.

Download our Mobility Oriented Development (MODe) report below.

Download our Mobility Oriented Development (MODe) report here.

Diane Legge Kemp

Vice President, CallisonRTKL +852 9450 9103 Ask me a question