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Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
Learning from Milton Keynes
“Milton Keynes is considered to be one of the most successful large-scale development projects ever undertaken in England, delivering homes, jobs, facilities and services to create a balanced community.“

So say English Partnerships. Now celebrating its 40th year, Milton Keynes has enjoyed continuous population growth, from 65,000 in 1970 to 210,000 today, creating 60,000 new households. It hosts 7,200 employers and has been rated 5th out of 48 UK cities for overall business environment. Coutts Bank has recently opened a new branch in Milton Keynes in response to research suggesting the city is ‘a haven for the millionaires of the future’.

But all is not well in Milton Keynes. A battle is brewing, two armies gathering. Demonstrations have been held, websites launched, letters written. At first glance it appears to be a traditional case of developer vs nimbies but closer examination reveals a more profound ideological debate, with potential implications for new homes throughout the UK.

In line with current government policy the developers and their (London-based) architects are applying the traditional European city model and whipping up a veritable ‘urban renaissance’, complete with Hubs, High Streets and a dense new Centre. Long-term residents and the original design team are outraged. They argue Milton Keynes was, is and always should be a decentralised city, a suburban city, a forest city, “greener than the surrounding countryside”. Creating a dense centre in this centre-less city not only destroys its fundamental character but threatens to bring rush-hour gridlock to the famously traffic jam-free streets. As citizens in a continuously growing city they are not averse to ongoing development, as long as it adheres to the original suburban city plan. This suggests a certain disparity, in Milton Keynes at least, between how people want to live and what they are offered to live in.

As the Government launches its Green Paper stating its intention to deliver 2 million houses by 2016 it seems useful to re-examine this newest of New Towns. Just what is it that makes Milton Keynes so different, so appealing?

Milton Keynes has developed within a robust framework, a universal grid, distorted by the local topography with a hint of the picturesque.

The grid squares partition the city into manageable development parcels that can accommodate a variety of typologies, tenures, uses and forms, whilst establishing a cohesive urban form. A quick glance at a number of adjacent grid squares reveal the heterogeneous richness of such a framework - an existing village happily sits between a Dixon Jones-designed linear modernist housing scheme and a Scandinavian inspired development of cul-de-sacs. Creating a framework that actively encourages a diversity of designs prevents the homogeneity associated with much modernist city making. That said, the size of the grid square and the timetable for delivery has led to individual architects designing up to monotonous 1,500 units at a time. Recent developments at New Islington and Accordia suggest that smaller parcels of 100-150 units provide a more successful variety and establish the sense of an ‘instantly mature’ city with the ability to evolve through time.

Milton Keynes is a forest city. The roads are lined with mature trees, and large parks sweep across its grid, making up 20% of its total area. The traditional European city defines its public realm by its buildings. By contrast Milton Keynes uses its landscape infrastructure – low maintenance trees and planting - to define its public face. Behind the hedgerow, a city, as Peter Cook drew in his 1972 Hedgerow Village project.

This extensive landscape infrastructure was put in place by a public sector that saw the long term benefit in such generosity. 40 year old trees now mop up carbon dioxide, reduce the acoustic impact of traffic and provide an overwhelming sense of lushness. A visual screen between the roads and homes, the landscaping is a damage limitation strategy adopted by a design team concerned for the quality of private sector housing rushed out to meet the ambitious targets of 3000 homes a year. In this aim it works – driving along the roads, or cycling along the separate Redways there is little sense of the buildings that make up this city of almost a quarter of a million people.

Yet for anyone that has grown up in a harder context, or heard the wind in the trees in the park setting of Antonioni’s film Blowup, this ‘Urban Eden’ provides a potentially more sinister environment, where muggers and and rapists lurk behind the next bush. Passing through in a car this is easy to ignore but the Redway cycle paths lack the intended traffic due to widespread concerns about safety. This reading of the suburban city, as a series of undefendable spaces, simplifies the sub/urban debate to a good/bad banality and provides affirmation for the urban renaissance policy maker. But by promoting defensible space and other good Urban Design Principles as ‘truths’ they threaten to whitewash the potential dangers of the high density orthodoxy.

Milton Keynes is suburban. Beyond density and aesthetics what does this actually mean? In Delirious New York Rem Koolhaas defines the metropolis as a ‘Culture of Congestion’. Like Jane Jacobs previously and the Urban Task Force more recently, his description of the city celebrates the busy hustle in which the citizens enjoy anything, anywhere, at any time. As Starbucks replaces the cornershop, the active urban citizen has been replaced by the passive consumer. In contrast the post war suburban legacy of semi-detached homes with subsistence gardens, Do-It-Yourself, Pick-Your-Own and garden shed invention suggest an alternative vision of residents as active producers.

Like any large scale attempt to create a new place Milton Keynes was an experiment in social engineering but rather than merely offering its residents ways of killing time it sought to actively suggest ways to use it. Early residents were met by the local social worker, given a garden starter park and a tree voucher refundable at the local garden centre. Community centres, social condensers in modernist rhetoric, were established in every grid square and funds made available to support any activities residents wanted to initiate. The result? Over 560 resident clubs catering to karate, knitting and everything in between. Full time artists were employed to initiate programs that would both improve the physical surroundings and bring people together. Judging by the passion exhibited by Milton Keynes pioneers’ in a recent broadcast of Radio 4’s ‘The Reunion’ this social infrastructure provided the foundations for Milton Keynes success, despite its buildings.

Milton Keynes is different. Home of the placeless Open University, roundabouts, concrete cows and a local football team imported from Wimbledon it is the only city I am aware of to consistently advertise on TV (Youtube: Milton Keynes advert). Conceived in the social revolution of the late sixties it is a city that aims to provide a new democratic model for living. In every detail it aims to offer its residents a freedom of choice. House and flats. New and old. Gardens and balconies. Private and public transport. Village shop and city mall. This element of choice may go against the fashions of current development policy but sits well alongside New Labour’s stated intention to provide individual choice.

Having enjoyed the last ten years of my life in central London I have no desire to forgo my ‘culture of congestion’ for the DIY suburban life of Milton Keynes, or anywhere else for that matter. But my view is unlikely to be shared by the majority and as part of the industry providing new homes I believe there is much to be learnt from Milton Keynes as to how people want to, and could, live.

As Derek Walker, Chief Architect and Planner for the city from 1970-76, asks, “If we look to our own experience of existing cities as our only criterion of ‘urbanity’ then we will in some ways be disappointed in Milton Keynes. But why should this be the measure? The city is being built for economic and social needs which, in the perspective of the history of city building, are new. The functions of the city have changed, why should the form have frozen?”

It is unlikely that the best options for our future cities will coincide with the most economically viable. I know of few singletons who wish to live in a north facing studio flat above a train station. Learning from Milton Keynes, we – us, society, government – must continue to strive to establish the conditions to deliver cities that match the desires of future residents, rather than the political and economical expediencies of now.
Published by Geoff Shearcroft
Building Design
2 August, 2007