Considerable multi-disciplinary effort with multi-agency collaboration and private sector participation has gone into the planning, design and building of the new Sydney Metro, a mammoth and badly needed investment in mass transit. This article offers an urban design perspective including some early background. It supports the view that, over and above its transport benefits, this investment should serve to shape and improve the built environment and, in doing so, should not be destructive of Sydney’s historic heritage.

About the Author

Raeburn Chapman is an architect, city and regional planner and urban designer who has worked internationally across academics and research, consulting and government and has specialised in infrastructure. He is founder and editor of Urban Design Review.


On January 9, 2023 the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) published a mainstream piece by Matt O’Sullivan, Transport and Infrastructure Editor, with the title: “Light at the end of the tunnel”. It concerns the massive $63 billion metro rail network being rolled out in Sydney by Transport for New South Wales with much of its construction underground – deep tunnels and subterranean stations. The title refers to the reshaping of city transport this program is intended to bring, namely, new ways people will travel around as a result of the new and upgraded mass transit network.

The new rapid transit system for Sydney has an extensive metropolitan reach: Metro North West from Rouse Hill to Chatswood, now complete, is 24km. Sydney Metro City and South West under construction is a 30km line that runs from Chatswood then cross-Harbour through the CBD to Central Station and on to Bankstown in the south-west.  The future 24km Metro West is earmarked to run from the Sydney CBD to Parramatta and Westmead via Five Dock. A glaring omission is a fast metro connection to Sydney Airport at Botany to the south. This can be seen on the simple sketch to the right.

It is interesting that the SMH, over two decades ago, published a double spread piece titled: “Tunnel Vision.” This referred to completion of the Eastern Distributor motorway by the then Roads & Traffic Authority (RTA) helping to connect the airport with the downtown and opened to traffic in time for the Sydney Olympics. The title was not at all referring to a narrow piece of transport infrastructure delivery whose objective was no more than efficiency for cars and freight traffic.  On the contrary, that publication appeared as a feature in the Domain, the property section of the SMH.  It highlighted the far-sightedness of the project, that is, benefits of the infrastructure to the city because of the way it was done – re-planned, designed and built according to urban design principles with commensurate environmental, urban conservation and renewal benefits that would save the urban fabric of Surry Hills, improve road and pedestrian connectivity, create parkland, form a gateway to the city and enhance property values.  It would furthermore save the entire Cathedral precinct to the north due to tunneling beneath.

Eastern Distributor through Surry Hills in Sydney (Gareth Collins Collection).

There was a further “Tunnel Vision” article in the SMH on 17 August 2013, this time questioning whether Transport for New South Wales was on the right track (good pun) in planning for single-deck fast trains in Sydney, a separate issue.

Amazingly, Les Wielinga, the highly competent CEO of the much-maligned RTA (that, in fact, had lots of multi-modal transport, land development, urban design, engineering and organisational expertise and knew how to design and build) was brought in to act as Chief Supremo of Transport. The task was to restructure transport including road and rail into a single integrated mega-agency and, importantly, to get the new metro system started.

The RTA, which had become Roads & Maritime Service before morphing into Transport and which had established a Centre for Urban Design, initially collaborated on the 23-km Northwest Metro from Chatswood interchange to Rouse Hill. Its urban design team coordinated the agency’s road and traffic engineers to help fix station locations along the corridor and advise on early station precinct concept designs. Pedestrian, cycle, bus and taxi access were considered along with car parking. The road agency understood that the better the reach and convenience of access modes and the better the integration of station developments into their surroundings, the better would be the patronage for rail transport. Transport planning and design integration was necessary. RTA collaborated with Hassell who produced the early station precinct concept designs (with architecture consultant Kim Crestani managing that design process). Hassell were responsible for the architecture and landscape architecture for the project as part of the Northwest Rapid Transit consortium which is owned by MTR Corporation, Hong Kong. This delivery model is being applied to South West Metro.

While the Northwest Metro was obviously meant to support urban growth along the Northwest corridor, government was certainly intent on maximising opportunity for developers to build as much high rise as possible around and above stations: Private profit over public good notwithstanding possible value capture to recover the costs of infrastructure. It remains to be seen how all this plays out in terms of integrated environments, urban and landscape quality and regional structure along that corridor. Much due diligence is required. Metro Northwest, which opened in 2019, is basically a tube with an uncomfortably low carriage ceiling height (so much for passenger comfort under the State government’s customer satisfaction mantra and for maximising patronage through multimodal connections) and largely isolated stations ripe for developers to do their thing.  At this time, zonings, precinct plans and development submissions related to Northwest Metro stations and encouraging.

This collaboration has continued throughout the Metro station design process but confined to coordination and advice on service vehicle access to developments, bus and bicycle arrangements, pedestrian crossings, location of metro station entrances, landscape and how developments address the street. Also, site and area traffic management during the station building process.

“Light at the end of the Tunnel” references the concern of Gabriel Metcalf, described as an American who until recently led the urban think-tank Committee for Sydney, “that wider benefits from the metro rail line will fail to be realised without designing areas near stations as growth areas, opening them up for higher density living.” Note high density not high rise. Metcalf points to a disconnect between land use planning and (rail) network planning, typical of Sydney. This can be said to be true of all transport infrastructure, especially road. On the other hand, current Sydney Metro CE, Peter Regan is reported in the SMH article as saying the new stations will create precincts that will form significant new destinations and activity centres in their own right. Transit-oriented development (TOD)? Let’s hope this is correct, because it would help restructure the city for the better. But this is not properly articulated and nothing is said of built quality, where TOD usually fails. The larger problem really is that Sydney Metro in itself does not stop urban sprawl. Regional transport and land use planning together with urban design and underpinning policy are needed to seriously address this.

On the City and Southwest project architect/landscape architect/urban designers have been used from the inception. I recall being very impressed at my first inter-agency meeting when representing The Centre for Urban Design: It seemed that for the first time, all disciplines were around the table, there was urban development thinking with three-dimensional (axonometric) architectural drawings showing not only station boxes but spatial sequences and movement relationships from platform to concourse and street levels and up to the sky. Almost like the French station design process but not quite as profound in terms of urban integration and city and regional structuring practiced by the Station Design Office of the French National Railways. However, what a difference the input from architect/urban designers was already making to the potential quality of transport space, form and experience for users.

Some good results appear to be coming out of this, such as Sydney Metro Martin Place in the heart of the CBD under construction (left). It is designed and being built as a fully integrated station precinct and transport hub with significant civic, commercial and transportation spaces, and subterranean and plaza surface connections. This underground railway station is heritage listed. Pedestrians and transit users should have a good experience here. The architectural and urban design collaboration has been principally between architects Grimshaw, Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW) and Tzannes, working with landscape architect ASPECT Studios and heritage consultant Tanner Kibble Denton. There is a complex private sector delivery model involved that would be interesting to evaluate in terms of urban design outcomes when this development is completed.

A big issue at the present time is Central, Sydney’s gateway station and busiest in Australia.  It is the connecting point of local, regional and interstate lines, light rail and bus.  Also, it is an historical and architectural icon, visually prominent and an important urban node in the city which is undergoing change.

On January 28, 2023 the SMH published a two-page spread by Megan Gorrey, Greater Sydney Area Journalist, in its News Review section, titled: “Shadow over Central.” This lays out proposals and opinions around plans to build about 15 buildings up to 34 storeys on land-bridge above the working rail tracks of Central Station. These proposals are a response to the indicative master plan for the over-rail development put out by the State government. There is a veritable international movement in the design and building of such land-bridges (or decks) many, it should be pointed out, in the form of “green lids.” The Centre for Urban Design at Roads & Maritime Services did much research on this for use by the agency.

The Figure below is an aerial photomontage of the NSW Government’s Master Plan for the rezoned development precinct over the rail yards at Sydney’s Central Station. It is the basis for the proposals and ideas in “Shadow over Central.” This is a still from Transport for New South Wales Central Precinct Renewal Program video showing the over-rail deck hard up against the southern perimeter of Central Station. It is replicated from  the article by Troy Uleman, “Leveraging Central Station in the over-rail precinct”, published in the Urban Design Review, December 13, 2022 (See:



The issue with Central is the typical Sydney one: Over-scaled building, too much and too high, in the wrong place, poor street and pedestrian connectivity, disconnected with the fabric of the city and with poor public domain outcomes. As Gorrey says about Central: The “flurry of mixed submissions to the rezoning proposal for the project points to less consensus on the shape and form of urban development that is needed to put the city back together successfully…”

Shadow over Central” draws out some critical urban design issues. Philip Thalis, an architect/urban designer and former Sydney councillor who with Peter John Cantrill produced the magnificent book “Public Sydney: Drawing the City”, gets to the essence. He regards the very layout of the proposal as “confused and disorienting’’ and forming “a cluster bomb of towers” rather than based on principles of urban design that take into account connected streets and defined parks and public spaces. Instead, as he points out, street alignments are the result of market advice on tower footprints, that is, developer driven.

Central Station precinct drawing from Public Sydney showing the form of the old station, the rail tracks to the south over which the above development is proposed, Belmore Park across Eddy Street to the north and Railway Square to the West. The built fabric and urban footprint will change radically.

The National Trust, whose concern is the conservation of historic architecture in Sydney (and national conservational issues) are worried that development would undermine the heritage quality of Central Station’s grand terminal building designed by Walter Liberty Vernon.

Central Station grand facade with double collonade and famous clock tower. A light rail ramps up to the upper level while another line runs at street level along with buses.


Eddy Street entrance to Central Station. Note in the background the roof canopy of the Northern Concourse behind floating free of the historic station building.

Troy Uleman, Sydney Director of international architecture and urban design company John McAsian + Partners who, with Woods Bagot, designed the stunning new Northern Concourse for Sydney Central Station as part of the new Sydney Metro extension, joining new and old and responding to the heritage of Central Station, worries that the now revealed precinct over the railway yards seriously fails the station itself. He calls it a missed opportunity for serious place making and better passenger and urban connectivity. Uleman writes about this in his article for Urban Design Review.

Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney, supports more development above and around Central Station as part of the Tech Central employment and innovation corridor, but is equally wary of the State Government’s rezoning proposal in terms of its scale and separation from the city.

Sydney Metro network in its entirety is a monumental public transport undertaking by any standards, with the potential to change not only transport but re-shape the city. Considerable multi-disciplinary effort has been involved in its planning, design and management. Potentially, Sydney Metro is a transformative transport infrastructure investment for both movement and the city if we play our cards right. Politicians, bureaucrats, planners, architects, landscape architects, urban designers, landscape architects and government must decide what is best for the city and Central station itself, what can be enabled from this investment and what legacy we want to leave. Where is the process or policy framework for this? Who is responsible? How much clout does the City of Sydney have within its jurisdiction on these matters? With new State elections pending and likely further changes to the organisational structure of transport whoever comes to power, all is up in the air, really. Developers will take advantage of this if there is no public framework to guide them.


The Sydney Morning Herald continues to publish major pieces on significant transport and city development issues that feature interesting ideas and viewpoints. My thanks to Gareth Collins, Director, Centre for Urban Design at Transport for New South Wales, for reviewing this article in its penultimate stage. All opinions and any errors are mine alone.