TOWN had the pleasure of sponsoring and attending the Academy of Urbanism Symposium New Towns: What Next? held last Friday in Milton Keynes as a part of a week of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of the new town – now city – of Milton Keynes.
MK is not natural territory for urbanists in the sense that its structure, form and movement economy are far removed from the compact, walkable, mixed-use pattern most now see as the tried-and-tested basis for successful and inclusive city planning.
And, as Lee Shostak explained in a learned presentation on early MK, the vision of “Pooleyville” in which MK’s origins lie had at its core a deep belief in mobility for all as a fusion of the social progress and economic modernity that was the spirit of the age.
As with many visions, the problem is that it was never fully realised, despite the MK Development Corporation spending the equivalent of £400 million a year at its peak on the development of one city (funded largely by capturing the uplift in value of formerly agricultural land).
The chief failing seems to have been an inability to extend to the suburbs the careful planning afforded the centre, with the consequence that public transport has never really worked and ‘mobility for all’ has thus become car dependence for those that can and isolation for those that can’t. Professor Robert Fishman of the University of Michigan drew comparisons (favourably) with the famous New Jersey town of Radburn, where the filtration of landscape into the town created a tremendous living environment, and (unfavourably) with the exurban sprawl of the suburban US where chaotic subdivision of land within the one-mile grid of agricultural roads has left many Americans “imprisoned by the grid”.
It was largely left, as it often is, to David Lock to mount a robust defence of the MK way. He pointed out that, unlike most postwar new towns which were architects’ blueprints, MK was a framework and reflected an ideal that people would come to MK and make a life for themselves and the place would change over time to reflect how they did that (the image he used was a trellis on which many different roses might grow). He argued that MK’s development was distorted when the Thatcher government post-1979 abolished the corporation, privatised many of its assets and then hollowed out local government such that (to paraphrase) the original spirit of progressive openness gave way to one associated with post-Thatcherite turbo-capitalism. Moreover, he pleaded for MK to be seen as the young city it is, without the patina of age and yet to develop the grain of adaptation that is taken for granted in other cities and underpins their constant physical regeneration and socioeconomic renewal.
Some doubted if MK has the physical attributes or the “subversive” culture to develop the urbanity of a true city. But the overall tone was one of optimism: MK is the fastest-growing and one of the most ethnically diverse places in the UK, and although the culture and municipal muscle of the Development Corporation is a distant memory, other institutions – MK’s many hi-tech employers, and the long-sought-after university due in the coming years, for example – may act as drivers for renewal and improvement. And MK may be an early beneficiary of the current era’s “white heat” in the form of the way that tech – powering on-demand transit services, for example – may alter the geography of the city.
So, yes, the huge blocks make things a bit of a schlep for pedestrians, and it’s never likely to be an easy place to live without a car, but MK’s next fifty years seem likely to be as interesting and unpredictable as the last.