Milton Keynes – Lost in Translation
Milton Keynes was conceived in very different times to today. It has weathered an onslaught of criticism for reasons both valid and void. The Wilson government that commissioned Milton Keynes had socialist ideology and hopeful, financially sound roots and Milton Keynes may be viewed as an embodiment of this.
This brief period gave way to years of political and financial turmoil, starting with the oil crisis in 1973. Successive governments had very different ideology leading them to view Milton Keynes with contempt. This, plus the decline in popularity of the modernist style, led to Milton Keynes being both out of fashion and out of favour.
Whilst the planners and makers of Milton Keynes cannot be held responsible for changing tastes and political revision, there are some errors of judgement that necessitate consideration. The seemingly relentless use of ‘Good Quality’ modernist design on such a vast scale resulted in a landscape that alienated many of the new residents who were, in the minds of the designers, the driving force behind this style. The architects saw themselves as creating dwellings of ‘Good Quality’ for modern people; utilitarian buildings that transcended previous notions of class. The people, however, were not quite ready for the revolution.
There appears to have been such confidence amongst the architects in these early years that they failed to fully realise how the public may react to their modernist vision. As disciples of this uncompromising school, their true faith was more akin to true arrogance. It has been suggested that visionary as they were, none fully appreciated the difference landscape architects may have made; by tempering the bold feel with greenery. Perhaps, if landscape architects had been given a better chance to influence planting around houses and offices, new residents and the public may have reacted more positively toward the slightly strange and futuristic place they were confronted with.
Examining and understanding the failings of Milton Keynes may prove useful for future town planning and landscape architecture practice, however, these failings are often complex and unique. When taken out of their original context, the reality is that the same rules are unlikely to apply. Criticising Milton Keynes seems almost to miss the point; it was understood there would be failures. Arguably, this was accounted for by making the plan for this New Town as unconstrained as possible.
In recent times, the popular opinion of Milton Keynes has been revised. It is no longer needed as a scapegoat nor is it the new boy in town. Modernism is no longer modern, however, much like Milton Keynes, it is fashionable again. The architecture of Milton Keynes is once again iconic and in some instances listed too.
Following on from Garden Cities and earlier New Towns, Milton Keynes is perhaps one the best known of all its siblings. Part of the third and final phase of New Town construction in the United Kingdom, it was the most ambitious of all. Created to eventually be home to more than 250,000 people, it finally reached that target in 2013 forty-five years after planning first began.
The land Milton Keynes was assigned had been mooted for development for many years. A rural area of poor agricultural land in north Buckinghamshire, it was known locally as the ‘Frozen North’. Its proximity to London just forty-six miles away, and is equal distance between Oxford, Cambridge and Northampton helped seal its fate. As with all New Towns, the land was acquired and control given to a Development Corporation tasked with overseeing the somewhat daunting task of building a vast town from scratch.
The Milton Keynes Development Corporation contained many progressive and dynamic characters and several of them had worked on other New Town projects. Recognising the failings of these, they attempted to address this through a number of strategies. For example, they implemented an unconstrained and adaptable master plan that was considered the best solution to cope with any unforeseen change. More immediately obvious was the style of architecture they chose to showcase this biggest and best of new towns. That style was modernist, very much in vogue at the time, it was bold and uncompromising. In Milton Keynes, the modernist vision contained a grid road system helping to give this development an American feel, despite modernisms Eastern roots.
Modernist architecture on this scale was unknown and it captured the imagination of architects and designers across the world. However, once new residents moved in and the British press reported back, it became clear that despite the bold intent of its makers, the people saw things very differently. Something had been lost in translation.
Garden Cities and New Towns
Garden Cities and their evolved descendant, New Towns, are planned settlements conceived in response to overcrowded cities and their assumed poor living conditions. They had a profound impact on urban planning throughout the UK and beyond, indeed, the creation of Garden Cities is widely regarded to have been the birth of urban planning policy (futurecommunities.net, 2017).
Garden Cities were the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, an otherwise unremarkable man with no prior experience of town planning. First published in 1898, his seminal book To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, formed the basis of the Garden Cities movement. Inspired by radical utopianism and driven by environmental and social concerns, Ebenezer Howard’s invention of the Garden City was based on a vision of combining the ‘advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country’ (futurecommunities.net, 2017).
The most iconic element of his book is the ‘The Three Magnets’ diagram shown below (Fig.1).
Source: architectsjournal.co.uk, 2017
The diagram summarises the political, economic, and social context underlying Howard’s utopian vision for the future of British settlement via three illustrated magnets (guardian.com, 2017). This hypothetical vision served as inspiration in the planning of both Llewelyn and Letchworth Garden Cities.
Howards’ theories were Utopian even within his lifetime, leading George Bernard Shaw to describe him as a ‘heroic simpleton’ (guardian.com, 2017). However, one of the ideals that remain as important now as then, is Howards’ recognition of the need to include some element of green space within the fabric of people’s lives.
The New Towns Programme
Following three decades of campaigning to promote the projects at Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities, and faced with the need to rebuild Britain after the Second World War, the post-war Government was persuaded to embark on a programme of town building itself: The New Towns programme. The New Towns Act 1946 detailed how and where these new communities would be located and paid for and how they would be planned and delivered by dedicated single-purpose organisations called Development Corporations (TCPA, 2014).
Between 1946 and 1970, thirty-two New Towns were designated in the United Kingdom. This programme was delivered in three phases; Mark One from 1946 to 1950; Mark Two from 1961 to 1966; and Mark Threes from 1967 to 1970. Reflecting the spirit of the Garden City movement, the objective of New Towns was not simply to provide homes and jobs, but to create socially balanced communities that integrated employment, homes and social life to provide opportunities for all. The new development was intended to be well integrated with pre-existing communities. This was more successful in some places than others, reflecting local geography, the design of the masterplan in promoting physical integration, the effort invested in social development and community cohesion, and the complexity and challenges inherent in such an endeavour (Lapping and Richert, 1998).
One important aspect of New Towns, especially in the context of Milton Keynes and this essay, is Development Corporations. Designated New Towns were temporarily removed from local authority control and given over to Development Corporations tasked with overseeing the birth of their respective town. Once ‘complete’, Development Corporations were disbanded, their assets split and control handed back to local authorities. Originally led by Sir ‘Jock’ Campbell, the MKDC (Milton Keynes Development Corporation) played a critical role in making Milton Keynes unique not only amongst New Towns but within the whole of the United Kingdom (Cook, 2001).
The Planning of Milton Keynes
“The future city of Milton Keynes first became a site on a map on Thursday 13th January 1966. Prior to that everything about it was nebulous” (Bendixson and Platt, p.1, 1998). Covering twenty-one thousand acres, this new ‘city’ was intended to eventually be home to a quarter of a million people. To give some context, Manchester at that time covered the same area and was home to one million (Bendixson and Platt, 1998). In today’s age, it may seem difficult to comprehend the lofty ambitions of such times, but this was the 1960’s, 2man.
During these heady days, the architects designing the centre of Milton Keynes realised the main street almost followed Stonehenge in framing the rising sun of Midsummer Day. They then consulted Greenwich Observatory to get the exact angle needed to be perfectly aligned at the latitude of Milton Keynes (theguardian.com, 2017). The following summer solstice, the architects held a bonfire, complete with Pink Floyd and joints to herald in the rising sun.
Such attitudes and thinking serve as a useful reminder that the planners of Milton Keynes were young idealists in a time of hopeful optimism before the political and financial turmoil of the oil crisis and miners strikes to come. This mindset may seem somewhat at odds with the reality of Milton Keynes today, but it was this thinking that led the planning and development of this ‘Newest and Biggest’ of New Towns to date (theguardian.com, 2017).
Melvin Webber & the Grid
Perhaps the most readily identifiable feature of Milton Keynes is the grid system it is based upon. The grid system, much like the town itself, rarely fails to attract opinion. Whilst completely practical and logical, and used in cities throughout the world, its use in the United Kingdom is almost alien. At the time, and even today to a lesser extent, it has been seen as un-English. Or, to be more precise, American. This concern about the ‘American’ form of Milton Keynes, with its car-friendly gridded pattern and low-density suburban housing, drew on broader anxieties about the increasing American cultural and political influence in the post-war period (Piko, 2016).
Richard Llewellyn-Davies and Walter Bor, who conceived and created the original master plan for Milton Keynes were inspired by the American urban planner Melvin Webber. Perhaps somewhat naively, the planners of Milton Keynes saw themselves as having learned the lessons from the failings of previous new towns such as Cumbernauld and Harlow which were poorly built and not designed with a car use in mind. This, coupled with a growing body of evidence from Webber, led to the belief that a grid system was the ideal solution for development as ambitious as this. (Walker, 1982).
Webber believed that traditional classifications used in planning, such as the demarcation and division of land use, were outdated and at odds with creating successful long-term growth. The grid model Webber argued for seemed the ideal solution to the problem of how to create a successful new town built from scratch. The grid took into account the rising use of cars, allowing easy navigation across the new town. However, this consideration proved to be something of a double-edged sword; it made Milton Keynes car friendly helping guard against potential obsolescence, but in doing so made itself an easy target for soon to come criticism of the world’s reliance on cars and oil, in one stroke crystallising all that was modern and ‘wrong’ with Milton Keynes (New Towns, 1994).
The result of this ‘seamless’ design was a grid made up of approximately one-kilometre grids laid out like a fishnet across the landscape. The main roads forming the grid were designed for through traffic with no frontage or access to individual grids to minimise congestion. Laid out as wide, tree-lined boulevards, they were intersected with roundabouts (unlike the American norm of traffic lights) to help keep traffic moving and avoid congestion (Piko, 2016).
So far as possible, the major function of each grid was undifferentiated and evenly distributed giving equivalent standards of access to all (New Towns, 1994). The residential grids were designed with low to medium density of housing and all had a small shopping area to help reduce travel. The commercial grids were designed at a higher density, but only slightly. Yet again, this was to help minimise congestion (New Towns, 1994). The wide range of local building densities from multi-storey flats and offices through to very low densities around golf courses, lakes and allotments had both an aesthetic and a social intent: it was part of strong rejection of the notorious uniformity of two-storey houses in earlier new towns (Journal of Urban Design, 2001).
One notable exception to this general principle is CMK (Central Milton Keynes), located rather predictably, in the most central geographic grid. Designed to contain a substantial shopping centre, restaurants and leisure facilities this was deemed a necessary deviation to meet new resident’s needs (Plan for MK, 1970).
Criticism of the grid has needed to be addressed, though by and large it tends to focus on it being ‘different’. This being ‘different’ had the unfortunate effect of compounding the modern and alien feel of Milton Keynes. In addition, use of the American style grid, and the inclusion of its associated low-density housing has been criticised as urban sprawl, something New Towns aimed to avoid. The grid systems flexible ability to extended outward, something designers considered a masterstroke, only served to heighten the fear and alarm of critics (Piko, 2016).
A New Plan
One of the most important lessons the architects of Milton Keynes believed they had learnt from the previous two phases of New Town construction was the need for freedom in planning. The failings of Cumbernauld with its poor road system and Runcorn, outgrown almost before it was completed (Bendixon and Platt, 1998) led to an understanding that planning ought to be as unconstrained as possible. This unconstrained approach was intended to take account of the unforeseen and unknowable state of things to come. This was a time of growing awareness of built-in obsolescence (Guiltinan ,2009) and Milton Keynes was striving to achieve the opposite, future-proofing itself before the phrase existed.
The grid system that helps define MK is the perfect example of this; not only could the grid be extended ad infinitum, the de-centralised manner in which housing, shops and business were laid out meant that aside from taking longer to reach the shopping mecca that is Central Milton Keynes, the dynamic of the town would remain unchanged (Walker, 1985).
Such forward thinking and awareness of the endless ways in which the world may change helped Milton Keynes evolve into what it is today. However, this approach has not always been viewed as entirely successful. Such unconstrained planning made it difficult to set clear goals; despite months of research and meetings surrounding transport, a consensus was never reached (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). This, in turn, led to the main roadways being built far wider than needed to allow for potential busways to be constructed. This led, partly through (unconstrained) indecision, to this expansion space being turned into a road for cars. The lack of a good public transport system and the over-reliance on cars remains one of the chief criticisms of Milton Keynes to this day (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). Furthermore, the resulting over provision of car parking spaces led to huge areas of what was, until relatively recently with car ownership levels finally being high enough to warrant them, empty characterless space. This helped compound what many viewed as the sprawling and soulless feel of Milton Keynes (Piko, 2016).
2.3 Modernism in Milton Keynes
Milton Keynes was, and still is to some degree, a poster child for modernism in the United Kingdom. Indeed, it has been argued that New Town planning is the ultimate form of modernist planning; modernist planners were given blank canvas on which to create their vision of the ideal urban society (Hobson, 1999). This was truer in Milton Keynes than almost anywhere else.
The ‘Plan for Milton Keynes’, with its grid system and low-density buildings were in themselves modernist. However, it is the buildings found in CMK (Central Milton Keynes, now rebranded centre:MK) that take the limelight. A perfect example is Milton Keynes shopping centre (Fig.2), listed in 2010.
Fig.2 Milton Keynes shopping centre
Source: architectsjournal.co.uk, 2017
Half a mile long and constructed of glass and steel, the shopping centre is the beating heart and lifeblood of a town conceived under the spell of modernism. Its clean rectilinear lines and low rise, glass endowed façade are unmistakably modernist. Now grade II listed, the shopping centre also included the UK’s first public ‘infinity pool’ (Fig.3), another emblem of the style, though this has now been demolished.
Fig.3 Milton Keynes ‘Infinity Pool’
Source: ourmk.org, 2017
Fig.4 Milton Keynes Central railway station
Equally impressive, though not on the same scale, is the main train station building situated in Station Square (Fig.4). Glass fronted and steel framed, it is once again unmistakably modernist. Whilst both these, and most of the buildings still standing in CMK, were designed under the guise of chief architect Derek Walker and his associates, they pay undisputable homage to Mies van der Rohe, the pioneer of modernist architecture (historicengland.org, 2017).
Taking Bauhaus to Buckinghamshire
These buildings are now considered design icons and are a testament to the architects who conceived them. Young and idealistic, they shared a common belief in the ‘Good Design’ movement (the architectural embodiment of modernism), and considered themselves ardent followers (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). A distinctly socialist movement, the origins of ‘Good Design’ may be traced back to a German worker housing project in 1927, the Stuttgart Weissenhof Werkbund. Its creators included Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and its ideology was both political and aesthetic. Influenced in part by the writings of Marx, it was repulsed by anything and everything bourgeois. It was, as Tom Wolfe says “non-bourgeois within an inch of its life: flat roofs, no cornices, sheer walls, no architrave and no colour” (Wolfe, 2009).
‘Good Design’ was revolutionary and socialist to the core, “with a set of inviolable aesthetic and moral principles” (Wolfe, 2009). It was new and exciting and its influence on architects was both profound and lasting. These qualities; new, exciting and socialist, were the very qualities the makers of Milton Keynes sought to embody and impose on their creation. Indeed, Jock Campbell, chairman of Milton Keynes Development Council in these early years, has been described as an idealistic socialist who believed passionately in social housing and the aims of the Wilson Government (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). When considering all this, it is perhaps not surprising that ‘Good Design’ was seen as a perfect solution to creating Milton Keynes. And whilst it has undoubtedly been a ‘good’ thing, as evidenced by the shopping centre and station above, its dogmatic use has also been responsible for, what many have argued, all that is ‘wrong’ with Milton Keynes (Piko, 2016).
In the early years of designing, before resident feedback, the architects were given no brief. As chief architect, Derek Walker says, ‘they wrote their own’. Given in effect a blank canvas, they were free to impose their modernist will. Despite believing they had learnt from past failings, and thinking they were designing houses for the people, the people were, by and large, not impressed (Hobson, 1999). In the almost obsessive quest to produce estates devoid of any sign of bourgeois individualism, and perhaps being distracted by this, they failed to create houses that were liveable. New occupants complained of poorly configured living space, a lack of privacy and unusable parking spaces. Moreover, the utilitarian look was not universally popular; grey and drab did little to lighten the mood of locals (Bendixon and Platt, 1998).
These were early days and, once received, feedback from residents was considered and things were changed. However, it was not until the design of Shenley Church End estate in the 1980s and the use of a curvilinear approach that things changed significantly in terms of residential buildings. Until then, the ‘Good Design’ principles were still largely de rigueur, and the utilitarian look prevailed (Hobson, 1999). Bold and highly stylised as it was, on this scale ‘Good Design’ was all-consuming, and those who did not ‘get it’ found themselves completely oppressed. Perhaps more than anything else, this ‘oppressive, alien look’ was what the many detractors of Milton Keynes used to support their argument that is should be reviled (Bendixon and Platt, 1998).
Landscape and Design
From the inception of the master plan for MK, the importance of a high-quality landscape and green space was paramount; the city roads were designed with generous landscaped reservations filled with trees and buffer planting; there was a generous allocation of parks and open spaces for residents to use (The Plan for MK, 1970).
An understanding that the inclusion of green space is necessary within the make-up any successful built up area appears to have existed for centuries (Conway, 1996). In the United Kingdom, city parks are perhaps the most obvious evidence of this, from the historical viewpoint at least (Conway, 1996). Whilst previously understood at an informal level, it could be argued that Ebenezer Howard’s creation of Garden Cities helped to formalise this, emblazoning it upon the psyche of future planners and designers (Hobson, 1999).
New Towns are to a large degree an evolution of the Garden City species and it should, therefore, come as no surprise that green space is placed highly on the New Town agenda. The makers placed great emphasis on the importance of including green space in the make-up of Milton Keynes, possibly more so than any similar developments to that date. The original 1970 Plan for Milton Keynes allocated almost two thousand hectares of land to parks and open space out of total area of close to nine thousand hectares, which equated to twenty-two percent (The Plan For Milton Keynes, 1970). The reason for such generous levels or greenery is surprisingly complex. Obvious reasons have been alluded to already; to make it a pleasant place aesthetically and the benefits this space may have on resident’s well-being. However, there are a number of other underlying factors worth considering.
Get off my land
Firstly, the local geography assigned to the New Town was largely made up of poor agricultural land which included several features making development difficult and therefore financially prohibitive. Rather than simply ignore this negative aspect, the designers incorporated them into the master plan and used this land to form the basis of the towns green space (Hobson, 1999). The grid system making up MK was placed on the landscape to make the best use of the existing natural topography. The two waterways flowing through the designated land given over to MK (the river Ouse and Ouzel and Loughton Brook) formed natural valleys which were incorporated into the design. These rivers were used to create balancing lakes with flood control, in turn forming the foundations of the linear parks which make-up the green backbone of Milton Keynes.
These linear parks were designed to incorporate areas of heavy use, much like a traditional town park, along with less intensively used space intended to serve more of an aesthetic role along the lines of country park (The Plan for MK, 1970). The town parks were managed designed and managed much as any other, and the country-style parks were largely managed by grazing animal (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). Clever as this was, it did create some issues when new residents, possibly inspired by all the green space, acquired dogs in large numbers. The subsequent problem of dogs chasing cattle caused considerable upset with farmers, many of whom had already been displaced by the new development.
Working with the Land
These parks and lakes worked on many levels (pun intended); the practical in controlling water run off; the aesthetic in ‘looking nice’; the social in creating areas to play; the functional in improving health through improved air quality and the opportunity to exercise.
Such holistic thinking and designing may be viewed as ahead of its time and is arguably more evidence of the progressive and dynamic aspirations of the designers. A further indication of this approach is evident in the way the grid system was built ‘with’ the land. Whilst not always readily apparent on the ground, when viewed from above or on a map (Fig.5) the grid roads are slightly wonky. Unlike the iconic American model with perfect linear streets, the grid roads making up Milton Keynes curve and meander gently, flowing with the contours and natural lay of the land (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). This slightly whimsical quality gives Milton Keynes, despite its American roots, a distinctly English feel (Pikó, 2016).
Fig.5 Milton Keynes grid system
Source: miltonkeynes.objective.co.uk, 2017
The desire for trees and green space in Milton Keynes was such that it was given the nickname of ‘Forest City’ in its early years (Walker, 1985). This desire served a practical purpose in so much as it was hoped to balance the impact of new construction. This was not exactly revolutionary thinking; such utilisation with planting has, and possibly always will be the landscape architects raison d’être. Additionally, the dominance of low-density housing that makes up Milton Keynes necessitated the use of something to fill it, and using plants was the obvious choice. Existing trees and hedges were retained where possible but this was less viable around buildings than areas set aside for parks.
As building work began, the Development Council became increasingly aware of the public’s perception of Milton Keynes and the criticism surrounding its bold and futuristic appearance (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). This began to manifest as concern regarding the image being portrayed by the town’s modernist reality. The Development Council began to suffer something of an identity crisis and sought a way to redress these concerns. As a result, landscape architecture became increasingly relevant to the development of Milton Keynes and the ‘Forest City’ image was conceived and nurtured. Despite their efforts, however, they never managed to fully redress the balance and Milton Keynes would, for decades to come, be criticised and vilified for its modernity (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). The reasons for this are, however, are many and complex; involving politics, financial crises and changing tastes.
Road to Nowhere
While the 1970 plan for Milton Keynes stressed the importance of green space, and this was implemented from the beginning, it took until 1976 to set up a dedicated landscaping unit within the design team. This may be seen as a considerable failure in planning; whilst green ambitions had been highlighted, the lack of a dedicated group to lead these ambitions doubtless lead to a muddied vision of how to achieve this (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). Given this omission, the landscape team were forever playing catch up, almost certainly exacerbating a number of problems.
Neil Higson was given the role to head a landscape group some six years after construction began. He suggests that whilst the architects were only too happy to disguise engineering works with trees, they were less willing and possibly unable, to consider landscape when it came to houses and offices. Indeed, he makes the argument that the early designers considered architecture as omnipotent, something that should dominate the landscape, whereas landscape architects were fuzz-producers, something to be endured and not enjoyed (Bendixon and Platt, 1998).
In retrospect, the failure to properly consider soft landscaping within the plan of early house and office building had consequences that may have otherwise been resolved. However, doing so would have risked watering down the vision of modernism, thus making it the overriding reason why it was neglected. However, had landscape architects value been properly recognised, and a dedicated team established from the start in 1970, a successful compromise may have been negotiated (Hobson, 1999).
The inclusion of additional planting may have helped to alleviate the impersonal feel of Milton Keynes and improve people’s well-being; ‘New Town Blues’, a phenomenon well documented within many new towns, was a common issue reported by new residents in Milton Keynes despite such lessons supposedly having been learnt from previous new town projects (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). Additionally, toning down the ‘Good Quality’ with better planting may also have helped improve popular opinion surrounding Milton Keynes.
The tree-lined roads that architects were originally so pleased to see became a victim of their own success and had begun to create some unintended problems by the early 1980s. Intended to create aesthetically pleasing boulevards and minimise noise pollution, the trees had been planted too closely. They had become so large and the foliage so dense that, instead of being visually stimulating, the ‘boulevards’ were now claustrophobic and oppressive (Bendixon and Platt, 1998).
The trees created a ‘tunnel’ effect meaning drivers new to Milton Keynes had little sense of where they were, or where they might be going. Sign posts were largely concealed, adding to this disorienting feel, all of which made navigating Milton Keynes a deeply unpleasant experience. In addition, the experience of feeling lost in a hidden world of trees meant drivers, and sometimes pedestrians too, had little sense of place, something the Milton Keynes Development Council were already concerned with (Bendixon and Platt, 1)
This uncertainty of place fed into deeper concerns about the identity in Milton Keynes, or more specifically, the lack of it. To ordinary residents and visitors, Milton Keynes could feel oppressive, or possibly even worse from the designer’s perspective, bland (Bendixon and Platt, 1998). The carefully designed and highly stylised buildings of Milton Keynes looked, to the untrained eye at least, a bit samey. Whether this came as a surprise to the designers is something of a moot point, too many people Milton Keynes looked boring. The sameness made it hard for people to get their bearings. This, coupled with roads made up of an undifferentiated grid that isolated drivers, made the experience of being in Milton Keynes underwhelming at least and, at worst, unpleasant. That this had been achieved in spite of all the careful and considered research and planning was some feat (Bendixon and Platt, 1998).
In defence of these failings, the planners had not anticipated the efficiency with which the grid system would propel drivers on their journey. Large sections of road had become dual carriageway with a forty mile per hour limit. Once familiar with this, and the speed at which the towns many roundabouts could be navigated, locals drove at such pace that anyone unfamiliar with this was invariably intimidated.
Eventually, trees were felled and planting policy amended to reduce the encroachment into road space. Additionally, roundabouts were named and planted with varying species to help give some identity, thus aiding orientation (Walker, 1985). Whilst all this has improved the situation, Milton Keynes can still be difficult to navigate for visitors.
Start with a Park
Despite these failings, Milton Keynes has evolved into a town with enviable areas of green space. At one time the designer’s mantra was ‘Start with a Park’, and this has remained one of the main characteristics in the planning and development of Milton Keynes to this day.
Right from the inception, it was recognised that a positive relationship and interconnectivity between landscape, in which trees and other natural features dominate, and townscape dominated by buildings, structures and hard surface play an important role in creating a place where people will enjoy living, working and visiting. Milton Keynes’ landscape is characterised by a well-connected framework of green space throughout the city (Plan for Milton Keynes Volume Two, 1970).
Open space within the city of Milton Keynes currently covers approximately twenty percent of the total area, placing it among the highest local authorities in terms of open space per resident. This equates to 129 ha/1000 people. For comparison, in Northampton and Peterborough which are a comparable size to Milton Keynes, the ratio of open space per 1000 population is 78 ha/1000 and 93 ha/1000 respectively (Milton Keynes Open Space Strategy, 2007).
The New Town of Milton Keynes was envisioned as a ‘Forest City’ that would integrate the countryside into the heart of the community. The town’s masterplan included a natural environment of open space, green corridors and parks threaded through the development as a whole. All these green spaces were originally the responsibility of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, but when the task of building the new city was completed in 1992, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation was wound up. It was thought that the unusually high proportion of green space in the town would best be managed by a specific body rather than the local authority, and the Parks Trust was created (Milton Keynes Open Space Strategy, 2007).
The Parks Trust
The Parks Trust was created in 1992 to care for most of the city’s green space and was endowed with a substantial property and investment portfolio. A variety of green space assets were first transferred to the Borough of Milton Keynes on a freehold basis, which in turn transferred them onto the Parks Trust on a 999-year lease, intended to ensure that the assets would be protected in perpetuity. Much of the land the Trust received could not be built upon, and in order for the Trust to generate the funds, it would need to carry out its work it was also endowed with the freehold of commercial properties and other assets. Those commercial assets consisted of shopping centres, local shops, industrial and office developments and various miscellaneous properties with over 200 tenants (futurecommunities.net, 2017).
Like many things in Milton Keynes, the Trust’s creation broke new ground. In most places, parks are owned and managed by the local authority, but the city’s founders wanted to be sure that such a unique green landscape would be managed and protected forever, without having to compete for funds with other council priorities (theparkstrust.com, 2017).
Fig.6 Campbell Park makes up part of the Park’s Trust portfolio
Source: theparkstrust.com, 2017
At the risk of stating the obvious, Milton Keynes was conceived in very different times to today. Whilst the planners and makers of Milton Keynes cannot be held responsible for changing tastes and political revision, there are some errors of judgement that necessitate consideration. The seemingly relentless use of ‘Good Quality’ modernist design on such a vast scale resulted in a landscape that alienated many of the new residents who were, in the minds of the designers, the driving force behind this style. The architects saw themselves as creating dwellings of ‘Good Quality’ for modern people, utilitarian buildings that transcended previous notions of class. The people, by and large, were not quite ready for the revolution.
Another valid criticism, closely linked to above, is the architect’s (and the MKDC’s) failure to consider greenery and soft landscaping as a foil to a new building. This risked watering down the vision. In retrospect, it may have been worth it; it may have helped to alleviate some degree of the dreaded ‘New Town Blues’. In addition, this may also have improved popular opinion regarding Milton Keynes, helping the masses to see it as slightly less alien. However, it remains probable that even if the importance of landscape architects been fully realised from the beginning, and a team had been established from the start in 1970, the outcome would have been similar. No matter how successfully the modernist dogma was softened by planting, the overriding rhetoric would have been more or less the same.
To judge Milton Keynes simply in terms of success or failure may be of limited worth. Examining and understanding its failings may prove useful for future town planning and landscape architecture practice, however, these failings are often complex and unique. When taken out of their original context, the reality is that the same rules are unlikely to apply. Despite present housing shortages, it is difficult to envisage a time when such monumental construction projects will once again take place within the United Kingdom.
In recent times, the popular opinion of Milton Keynes has been revised. No longer needed as a scapegoat nor the new boy in town. Modernism is no longer modern, however, much like Milton Keynes, it is fashionable again. It’s architecture now considered iconic and in some instance listed too. It has been suggested, somewhat cynically, that we all live somewhere that looks a bit like Milton Keynes these days. Whilst this holds some truth, it should not detract from the realisation that, despite all the criticism, Milton Keynes isn’t really all that bad. Perhaps, after all, ‘Good Design’ was, if not brilliant, simply good.
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