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The case for innovative use of railway land in the Auckland CBD

Buildings located above railway land

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city with an estimated population of 1,673,000 in 2023. According to Statistics NZ, the city is projected to reach two million residents by the early 2030s if not sooner.  Within the city, the Central Business District (CBD) is growing at around 1.7% and currently provides around 110,000 jobs for nearly 20% of Auckland’s working population. The city centre has a growing residential population of over 40,000 people with another around 7000 housing units planned. 


Land in Auckland’s Central Business District (CBD) is amongst the most expensive in New Zealand. The Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) reported that Auckland prices increased by 350% from 1999 to 2019. This is simply the economics of urban intensification and is consistent with the experience of cities around the world. 


As with many international cities, this ongoing growth has led to the exhaustion of land available for development in the CBD.  There may be new opportunities, however, to unlock value from some Auckland CBD land and the wider Auckland metro area for clever multi-purpose use. Specifically, there is a case to consider innovative ways to use the land above, below and adjacent to the Auckland railway network.  

Auckland city railway land - line map

The Auckland Central Rail Link (CRL) is notably already on course to bring significant economic development to the sites adjacent to the newly built railway stations. Britomart station, Newmarket Station, Waitematā Station and others have shown what this kind of multi-purpose use could look like and the transformation it has initiated in the surrounding areas. 

Interest in developing railway land is increasing internationally

The development of railway associated land is not a new idea and many high-density international cities have undertaken extensive investment in such land. This includes a number of European cities with old metro networks through to rapidly developing metropolitan areas in North America and the Asia-Pacific. While some have the historic advantage of underground networks developed over hundreds of years, many do not. Planning frequently begins from core transport hubs and ripples outward.  


Railway stations and railway lines are by necessity close to the built environment. Key nodes within the network are the source of intense urban planning and considerable investment. Reusser et al (2008) highlights how railway stations in Europe are becoming a destination in their own right and are consequently attracting investment. 

Image of Wien Mitte Mall and train station

The necessity to connect the space adjacent to transit areas (including railway stations and lines) is essential to urban revitalisation. Zacharias et al (2011) notes the trend in Japan ‘to combine commerce, leisure, media, fashion, information’ to make railway stations and the area around them spaces for ‘creation and innovation’. 


Railways and the use of railway land have a significant impact upon the urban environment and in many cases its linearity can divide urban centres.  Revisiting common assumptions and challenging the downsides of rigid railway infrastructure needs to be encouraged to facilitate better movement within cities and prevent unwanted urban ‘dead zones’. 


There is no doubt that the railway network in Auckland city has had a significant impact on the evolution of the city, its liveability, and the people who live in it. The question is whether the  innovative use of Auckland’s rail associated land could provide a solution to a number of the challenges the city faces and a means for the step change the city deserves.     


Feasibility of developing Auckland railway land

The merits of using railway land optimally seems self-evident, particularly in dense urban environments such as Auckland. The question is whether the value of developing these critical nodes and associated railway land for multi-use would provide a Return on Investment (ROI) for the Auckland CBD and wider metro areas. 

At a basic level, the analysis for the ROI for the development of railway land in the Auckland CBD would need to consider: (a) the cost of the railway land (b) the cost and complexity to develop the land (c) the cost and impact upon adjacent associated infrastructure (d) the potential ROI from development itself and (e) the social, Iwi, environmental considerations and possible cost/benefits from such projects.  

Covered railway tracks - Paris. Showing overbuilding

Covered railway corridor – Paris metro. 

Engineering company WSP have undertaken analysis of the feasibility of using the space above railway land within the London metropolitan area to build residential housing. By their calculations there could be around 280,000 new London houses constructed above railway land.  This estimation was based upon an assumption that the buildings above the railway would be 12 storeys high and upon ‘viable land’ of at least 100 metres long. Key constraints were assessed to be decking costs (span width, foundations, etc), rail restrictions and risk, and delays associated with approvals. 


The opportunity to develop Auckland’s railway land also needs to consider the wider, longer-term benefits of such development to the urban environment. How could it support Auckland become a more liveable city? Could it help manage sustainable intensification? Could it revitalise and re-connect the city? Could new sustainable green space be developed? What other opportunities could emerge from this?

Railway tracks - possible overbuilding opportunities
Development use cases for Auckland railway associated land

The opportunities are endless but development options with railway associated land could include: 


Residential housing development

The housing crisis due to inadequate supply for the growing population is a challenge Auckland and a number of international cities continue to grapple with. Medium to high rise residential developments above railway land could allow the provision of housing in the Auckland CBD and wider metro area. This could support the policy objective of continuing intensification within urban centres and the associated use of public transport to reduce environmental impact and increase efficiency.    


WSP estimate that Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney could create an extra 77,400 and 29,160 homes respectively by building over railway associated land. There are numerous other international examples including Manchester (UK) Victoria station and The Royal Mint Gardens development above Fenchurch Street Station.  Within Auckland, the Newmarket railway station is an example at a smaller scale.  


Enhanced pedestrian access

Connecting the city and allowing more seamless pedestrian movement between its key attractions has been an ongoing focus for Auckland. This effort could be accentuated further by reimagining disused railway land and/or building over the land in the city and reducing the barriers it creates. This kind of project could become an iconic feature of the city and significantly enhance its liveability.


Examples of this include the ‘Goods Line’ in Sydney where a disused rail line has been converted into greenspace for pedestrians and cyclists from railway Square to Darling Harbour. The High line in New York city is another example of a pedestrian walkway that utilises 2.33 km of disused elevated freight railroad. 


Urban living and green space

The creation of new urban living areas including ‘green space’ within the city is an exciting prospect. This could range from parks, gardens, forested areas, connected walkways, public squares, covered civic facilities and everything in between. This could provide an opportunity to radically transform the aesthetic look and feel of parts of Auckland city and enable rejuvenation.  

Examples include Federation square in central Melbourne that sits on a 38,000m2 solid deck over the Jolimont Railway Yards.  Atlanta city is considering a project ‘Buckhead Park Over GA400’ which will be 731 metres of greenspace over a railway line and highway Called Buckhead Park Over GA400. Singapore is also undertaking work to revitalize a former 24-kilometre-long disused railway into a public park and Boston, US is considering options to re-use spaces beneath its elevated roadways. 


Mixed use development 

Mixed use developments could include shopping centres, hotels, residential and other commercial use. While mixed use development in many international cities is frequently centred around high volume rail transport hubs, other rationale (such as proximity to the foreshore and key other attractions) may be equally important factors in Auckland. 


Examples include the ‘Shard’ in London, which is built partially above the London Bridge Station, the Grand Arche complex above the Paris metro system, Wien Mitte ‘The Mall’ at Wien Mitte train station (Vienna), Euston Station in London, and Stratford station in the UK.    

Cycle paths 

Dedicated cycleways are already a feature of the Auckland CBD and metro areas and this could be further developed and connected to new walkways and greenspaces. An example is the Berlin Radbahn project that aims to create nine kilometres of covered bikeways beneath Berlin’s U1 railway.


Sporting/recreational facilities

New sporting and recreational facilities could be created above railway land in Auckland. This could range from facilities used for sports such as basketball, netball, tennis, football, badminton, squash, golf driving ranges, to aquatic complexes. At the larger end of the spectrum are stadiums capable of holding large events and thousands of spectators.


International examples include the Brentford Football club in the UK that is above the Great Western Main line and the proposed new Chelsea Football Club stadium in London. The Chelsea project will use decking to cover the West London railway Line and the District Line on the London underground.  

Schools and educational facilities

Land suitable for building new school facilities and/or extending existing ones is challenging to find in the Auckland CBD and wider metro areas. This may become particularly acute in the Auckland CBD with rapidly increasing levels of residential housing. Schools and tertiary educational facilities could be built over railway land close to the CBD to alleviate the pressure on out of zone schools and reduce commuting time for families. 

Examples include the London based Ark Soane Academy that will have a capacity for 1,200 students being built above Ealing Broadway Station. In Tokyo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School was built above the Shinjuku Station and has seven-stories and can accommodate around 1,000 students.  

Possible locations for viable Auckland railway land 

Auckland has kilometres of railway land located within the CBD and the wider metro area that could be exploited for future development.  While the viability of this land for future development is unknown, detailed analysis of each option could be warranted. The prospective land could include the following locations: 

  • The railway land between Mechanics Bay and Tamaki Drive;

  • The railway land between Quay St, Ngaoho Place, and Te Taou Crescent; 

  • The railway land corridor from the Grafton Station to Eden Station and further West; 

  • The railway corridor from Parnell Rise encompassing the Parnell and Newmarket Stations; 

  • The railway corridor between Great South Road and State Highway 1 – from Remuera Road encompassing the Remuera, Greenlane, and Ellerslie Stations;  

  • The railway corridor from Penrose Station encompassing Te Papa and Onehunga Stations; 

  • The railway land in Penrose from Nielson Street South through to Otahuhu Station and adjacent to Manukau Harbour;

  • The railway corridor from Otahuhu Station South through Middlemore, Papatoetoe, Puhinui Stations. 

  • The railway land between Titi Street and Otahuhu train Station;    

  • The railway corridor between Waipuna Road and Sylvia Park and South to the Southern Eastern Highway; 

  • Other examples that may also exist in the wider Auckland metropolitan area. 


The price of land in the Auckland CBD could justify development of land above, below and adjacent to the Auckland railway. This could unlock space for residential, commercial, and a wide range of other use cases. The broader opportunity, however, for Auckland could be in the development of new space that connects the city and makes it more liveable.  It is recommended that further analysis is undertaken around the feasibility of such projects.    


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