Places in the city defining and delimitating the station as place

What do we mean when we call the railway station a place in the city? Essenti a place is a physical environment and a synonym of 'space', or the physical surroundings and a synonymous of 'atmosphere' (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1986). It is interesting to note that material, quantifiable qualities (as evoked by the term space) coexist with immaterial, qualitative attributes (as evoked by the term atmosphere). From the perspective of station redevelopment, the focus here is on the piece of city incorporating the station—on what is sometimes called the station neighbourhood or the station district.

This description, however, is still too vague for research purposes. In trying to improve on it, we discover that the railway station as a place has uncertain boundaries. Where does the border lie between the station district and the rest of the city? What makes the former 'different' from the latter? The fact is that there are several overlapping systems ('the city is not a tree', as poignantly contended by Christopher Alexander (1965) many years ago). The influence of a railway station may go far beyond its immediate surroundings. Conversely, entities right next to a railway station may not show any apparent relationship to it. Almost inevitably, any delimitation of the station as place is destined to be somewhat arbitrary. In practice, four approaches to this problem can be identified. These might be characterized as the walkable radius, functional-historical, topographic, and development perimeter approaches. Each has its particular advantages and limitations, as outlined below.

• The walkable radius. Following this approach, the railway station area is identified as the circular area radiating from the railway station that is considered 'walkable' distance. This is, for instance, the solution chosen by Munck Mortier (1996), who adopts a walkable radius of 500m. Others use a time criterion: for instance, a 'ten-minute walk'. One advantage of this approach is that it embraces the average user's perspective, which is the least partial of all. But this approach also has some drawbacks. It does not generally coincide with the functional unit of a 'station district' or the area that is the object of a redevelopment initiative. Also, the walkable radius often does not coincide with the actual walkable distances. That discrepancy is due to the existence of asymmetrical physical or psychological barriers, and of different sorts of user.

• Functional-historical elements. The railway station area is here considered equal to the sum of the functional elements (for instance, a commercial axis connecting station and city centre, or industrial and distribution facilities with a direct connection to the station), having (or having had) a strong evident locational link with the rail transport centre. Bakker (1994), for example, takes this approach. The advantage of the functional perspective is that it allows relatively rigorous and meaningful criteria. One disadvantage is that it focuses on current or past uses rather than on the potential evolution. Another weak point is that negative 'dysfunctional' relationships tend to be overlooked.

• Topographic. From this point of view the railway station area is the surface included within an arbitrary (mostly rectangular) section of a map. The location and extension of this window are determined by a commonsense evaluation of which elements to include in the analysis. However, its arbitrary shape is justified by the need to consider 'all that is there', avoiding a priori assumptions. This is, for example, what Pucci (1996) has done. The advantage of this perspective is that it combines both user and functional criteria. Its main limitation is that the criteria are vaguely defined, and thus are difficult to verify or replicate.

• A development perimeter. A fourth possibility is to consider the area included within the perimeter of a specific redevelopment initiative, as done by Bertolini (1996b). This approach has two advantages. First, it adopts the perspective of a specific development plan, and is thus the most concrete. Second, it generally has a better coincidence with administrative boundaries and an acceptable coincidence with functional boundaries. It also has some disadvantages. Areas under the railway station's influence, but excluded from a plan, are neglected. The developer perspective is also the most partial. And if there is no comprehensive plan, this approach is not applicable.

The station as place

Fig. 2.2 The station as place.

In addition to their individual drawbacks, a problem common to all these approaches is that they do not allow for a flexible delimitation of the railway station area. These approaches should be evolving in accordance with progress in understanding of the issues at stake, and/ or (with the partial exception of the fourth approach) with changed planning circumstances. A way to overcome part of the delimitation problem could then be by distinguishing between a delimitation prior to analysis and one, possibly different, resulting after closer examination of a case. For this reason, a combination of the approaches described above is proposed. An arbitrary yet use-based definition (walkable radius) was initially chosen. It was then amended according to the specific characteristics of each situation (functional-historical) and the redevelopment process (development perimeter). The meaning of 'place' as discussed earlier is implicit in such a choice. That meaning is made explicit in the following definition of the station as a 'place in the city':

All the built and open spaces, together with the activities they host, contained within the perimeter designed by a 'walkable radius' centred on the railway station building, as amended to take account of case-specific physical-psychological, functional-historical and development features.

The station as a place in the city is shown in Figure 2.2.

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