REGULATORY RANT: Holland: floating trees, air rights and train stations
November 26th, 2019 7:38 am     A+ | a-
 Blog and Holland photos by Michael de Lint / RESCON

In a February blog, I stated the obvious: Toronto has big transit, zoning and housing supply deficits. What is not so well known is that there are some win-win solutions to these transit and housing supply problems.

Hong Kong, Melbourne and Stockholm help fund subways through the use of air rights and land-value capture (LVC) above and adjacent to transit stations, which sets the template for further transit-oriented development (TOD) in the area. Cross-disciplinary thinking, which is necessary to drive this kind of development, is not encouraged by our university silos: planners are too often not trained in economics. I visited Holland this summer and saw several recently redeveloped rail stations that are excellent examples of a more pragmatic and integrated approach.  


To his credit, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has revisited ways to fund transit in what can be described as a “brand new kind of partnership.” The Vandyk Group of Companies will re-build Mimico GO station in exchange for development rights above the site. The developer will also construct a parking facility, a public park, a pedestrian bridge and a cycling greenway, in exchange for the right to build a mixed-use commercial, residential development above the station.

Mimico GO station proposal. Source:

Holland has a long tradition of experimentation in social policy and urban design some of these experiments are rather odd and many are inspired.  Air rights are a big theme in some recent design efforts.

Above: Rotterdam’s “urban forest” of subsidized cube houses.  Perhaps a solution looking for a problem. These were replicated only on Toronto’s Sumach Street. I suggested while at the Ministry of Municipal Affair, that the developer rotate the buildings for conventional vertical walls. He disagreed. Now the land is for sale without the cubes.

Inspired: Market Hall Rotterdam is a farmer’s market encapsulated by an apartment building.

Rotterdam’s floating trees. Why? Why not?


Several Dutch rail stations have recently been redeveloped to include a wide range of additional uses or occupancies, becoming what have been called “urban cathedrals.”. These stations included: Breda; Heerlen in the very south of Holland (still recovering from the loss of its mining industry and trying to revitalize parts of the urban core); and Amsterdam (which recently completed a major expansion of its subway line).

Redeveloped train station in Breda, which now includes commercial office and residential uses, along with an integrated bus station and bike parking. Building in the background is part of the train station complex.

Heerlen, near Maastricht, has the largest train station redevelopment project in Europe, and one which has helped to revitalize an entire district within the downtown area. The project designer is Heerlen native and sculptor Michel Huisman. His approach was simply to make things more beautiful. He was able to persuade the City authorities to support his vision to redevelop the crime-ridden area around the old train station, in a big way. The redevelopment project includes 125 high quality residential units, a hotel and supermarket. Prices for housing units in the train station complex have risen significantly and surrounding property values have increased. While Huisman focused on maximizing value and beauty, the accountants for the city, and rail company, looked at financials – they were happy with the cost-benefit or pro-forma real estate analysis.


With big challenges and not much land, Holland has had to be more experimental in urban design than other countries, hence: floating trees and floating buildings, the extensive use air rights, and of course, re-thinking its train stations. You learn by thinking outside of the box and outside our traditional academic silos (planning juxtaposed against economics), and by doing. While Holland, out of necessity, must experiment, Ontario can also advance by being a little more adventurous (and by recognizing that great design can overcome almost all problems). GO’s Mimico station is a fantastic start, but in the GTA we still have too many TTC and GO stations sitting right beside detached houses and parking lots. This practice is impossible to justify while we have huge transit and housing supply deficits.  

Michael de Lint is RESCON’s director of building regulatory reform and technical standards. Email him at
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