What went wrong at Milton Keynes?

[Has new bits pasted in below, as well as comments – to Feb 6 2007]
Interesting evening 25 January lecturing at Milton Keynes Gallery www.mk-g.org as the first speaker in their series of 4 talks entitled ‘What is Contemporary Architecture?’, presented in association with their new Project Space exploring art, architecture and the urban environment. I said my piece to a good-sized audience – pulled by this publicity blurb:
In his first job he worked on the original master plan for Milton Keynes and has since then watched the development of the town which, in his opinion, has led to a much less sustainable place than could (and should) have emerged. He argues that it is not too late and that a number of policy changes could turn the story round, leading to better bus services, stronger local shopping, more housing diversity and an end to getting lost on the grid.
Lots of strong resistance – mostly from men my age, some of whom I learned were the people I was attacking – and some support, much but not all, from women. Some very open-minded discussion too.

The talk was an updated version of what I published as Edwards, M (2001) ‘City design: what went wrong at Milton Keynes?’ Journal of Urban Design 6(1): 73-82,
Download file

There were a number people emphasising the stratification / segregation affecting some estates (I think ‘gridsquares’ was the term they used) and I later had an email from Allan Cochrane at the OU, who had to leave before the end, including….
I thought your pesentation was really nicely done and generated an interesting discussion, too. The possibility of having that sort of discussion about different visions of the city and its development is, I think, quite unusual, and you managed to get through the usual defensiveness of local residents (everybody hates Milton Keynes and we don’t care, because we like it!) to open up some serious questions, breaking through the smugness of some of the Development Corporation discourse. I was struck by the MK Council architect’s view that the new development might learn from points like those you made, but it’ll be interesting to see how that works out in the negotiations between the planners, English Partnerships and the developers. I suspect it’ll all end in tears…and public transport will continue to be the thing that everybody moans about, with only a few nodes having anything approaching a reasonable service.

I was also struck by a point you didn’t labour, but seems significant. The ‘democratic’ grid is only democratic if services and transport are distributed along the lines you suggested – if they are not then the democracy soon dissappears and you have quite finely tuned social segregation between grid squares, which is hidden behind grass mounds and so largely invisible to those travelling along the grid roads and within their stretched communities.

In replying I referred to a good intervention by a speaker from Social Services and Allan added:
I do know Danny Conway and I’ve drawn on a report he prepared in the past – it would be interesting to explore what he’s been doing more recently. One consequence of the stuff he did a few years ago was that the Council developed a social atlas of MK, which is more or less regularly revised (leading on a regular basis to the residents of particular areas complaining about the way in which their areas are stereotyped by the stats and the ubiquitous ranking of ‘social deprivation’ by grid square and estate).

Another good thing was that Mike Macrae was there – the architect/planner with whom I worked so much during the planning. He joined in too and perhaps we can keep this going in some way and help the more progressive forces in MK get some improvements.

A few days later I had an email from David Foster of the Milton Keynes Parks Trust – which owns the green strips – who had clearly heard I was attacking his precious trees, writing “I appreciate a few people see the MK greenery as a curse but the majority love it – happy to give you the evidence from our professionally commissioned surveys if you need it. Most cite it as the number one or number two reason for moving their homes or their businesses here and most people who live here feel it is one of the best aspects of MK.

We own 4,500 acres of MK’s greenspace, about 20% of the city, and manage it to a decent standard at no cost to the local tax payer. We have recently published a strategy setting out how we propose to enhance it further (see ‘introducing the parks trust, statements and policies’ section on our website: www.theparkstrust.com).

I have promised to go and see him…. But the web site makes it pretty clear that the thrust of their work is seen as perpetual guardianship of GREEN stuff, rather than custody of the space for future uses….

5 February, David Foster of the Parks Trust writes:
…I’m not sure I like the Parks Trust being cast as a block to progress or that we are somehow more interested in the green stuff than people’s lives and the sustainability of the city. We are, and will contiune to be, open minded. We have in recent years exchanged some bits of greenspace with relatively low social and ecological value for new higher value greenspace where we have felt it in the best long term interests of the city and where it is supported by the democratically elected local council. This has been against some strong and heartfelt local opposition but in line with our carefully worked out policy that allows some flexibility to our stewardship. Of course it would be easier to have a policy that said ‘thou shalt never touch the greenspace’ but we recognise cities have to evolve and the needs of society change over time.

With regard to the grid road corridors, we can support the idea of development coming out to meet the grid roads at key locations, such as around underpasses and these would naturally be the best places to site bus stops and local facilities. I understand this reflects the later policy of the Development Corporation to establish ‘points of connection’ between grid squares. We wouldn’t want to see this happen every couple of hundred metres on every grid road as the essential character and the unique qualities of the city would be destroyed but we are prepared to consider this idea in a limited number of locations. As well as helping link communities and promote public transport (by making bus stops more hospitable and increasing demand) it would also help make the city more legible. What we find difficult to contemplate is the idea of wholesale removal of sections of grids road (as proposed at Oakgrove) or intense development along several miles of corridor (as suggested in the 2031 proposals for the V7) which would effectively remove a complete green corridor .

Having said all that about our flexible approach I have to point out that our default position is a presumption against development on our greenspace.

Feel free to post this if you think fit.

6 February Allan Cochrane writes….

I’m happy enough for my words to be used, since they reflect some of my concerns about the development of the city. But your blog also raises a few other issues for me.

First, for good reasons, your talk concentrated on ‘what went wrong’. However, it seems to me equally important to reflect on ‘what went right’. There is no doubt, as some in the audience pointed out, that residents of MK tend to be positive about the place – and surveys suggest they are ‘happier’ than residents of other cities. Those of us who live her quite like it. I think that’s interesting, because it suggests that it is possible to plan and develop urban places to achieve positive results and not rely on the organic processes of change so beloved of some urbanists. This was an active and deliberate process of development.

In other words, roundabouts or not, flawed or not, so far Milton Keynes can also be seen as a success – however relative – particularly when compared to the suburban/exurban ooze that characterises much of the rest of the South East, at least in its growth areas. One interesting question about the next phase of growth will be whether this distinctiveness will survive, and whether the planners and others a) can be as strong in the bargaining process with developers and b) have the same sort of vision for the city. (The nature of more mainstream private sector development in recent years suggests that there is a real need for such a vision, and talks like yours make it possible to begin the wider discussion that might underpin such a vision).

In that context, I’d be a bit cautious about generalising too much about the gender differences in reactions to actually existing MK. MK is still a city with a relatively high proportion of its population at the young family end. There is some evidence that the green spaces of the city (however parcelled out) are viewed positively by those bringing up their children here, women as well as men.

And, finally, I really enjoyed the trip back through the history of MK planning, but it is important not to get stuck into a debate that sees problems as lying in some foundational error. I think it is necessary to explore and understand the ways in which compromises and negotiation took place (with developers, with the gatekeepers of public housing), highlighting the tensions, choices, possibilities and constraints that underpinned the process.

So…your talk opened up a series of debates, which I hope are going to be taken forward both in MK and – potentially – more widely.
end of item.
M.E. Comment – yes I should have contextualised all this in relation to the great success of MK in so may respects. (Founders, though, are obliged to worry about foundational errors, if only for the benefit of th next foundation. I’m working on Thames gateway just now which could be much worse than MK or possibly better….)

New comment by email 2015 May 9 from Michael Shea:

Dear Mr Edwards,

The other day I stumbled across your article about ‘what went wrong at Milton Keynes?’ and read it with interest, as someone who was born and raised in the city. I was surprised to find that many of its design quirks (both good and bad) appear to have come about by accident.

I agree with most of your conclusions regarding what ‘went wrong,’ however, I would argue that the fact that it is essentially impossible to live in Milton Keynes without owning a car is by far the single biggest flaw in the design of the city. For example, when I was reliant on public transport I used to have to allow an extra hour and a half to my journey time to get the city centre (the drive only takes fifteen minutes).

All of the main roads are grid-locked during the morning and evening rush hours and the roundabouts -which work quite well when the roads are quiet- actually inhibit the flow of traffic. [My father, who is a computer scientist, once ran a model that demonstrates that roundabouts are more effective than traffic lights at managing large volumes of traffic in theory, however in practice people drive too fast over them, causing the traffic approaching from the left to stop abruptly, which leads to tail backs and accidents]

It is interesting to note that since your article was published several of the more notorious roundabouts have in fact been retrofitted with traffic lights as you suggested. With the population of Milton Keynes set to double by 2030 it may become a truly miserable place to navigate. Though perhaps the saving grace might be the advent of driverless cars and other such vehicles, as the simple grid system and the roundabouts themselves would be ideally suited to automated vehicles.   Kind regards, Michael Shea


Author: Ed

staff in the Bartlett School of Planning and cooperating with others in UCL and with the Just Space Network to support London citizens' inpu

4 thoughts on “What went wrong at Milton Keynes?”

  1. It was a very good discussion well summed up in your blog.

    Just been looking at the current map and note that of course it is the internal areas of the grid square that have been named – Eaglestone, Coffee Hall, Fishermead etc. whereas of course it should be the bus stops on the grid roads drawing together
    people from both sides.

    An image is worth a thousand words (!?) so I am drawing up schemes for the roads around Fishermead. Actually I think we need a competition for these which would quantify the land take/provision and could perhaps allay some fears.


  2. I think you might find it interesting:
    “Bus passengers on city services within Milton Keynes will soon benefit from up-to-the-minute travel information (…) Instead of waiting, not knowing if your bus is just around the corner, passengers on routes 4,5 and 23 will be able to see the “real time” their bus is due on signs located at bus stops and on large screen displays located at key destinations. Information will also be available on the Internet and by using the SMS text messaging function on mobile phone…”
    MKP Press Release, 2/2/2007, http://www.miltonkeynespartnership.info/media_centre/press_releases.php?ID=64
    M.E. Comment to Dobrochna. Those info cystems cretianly help, I agree. We have them in London at a seemingly random sel;ection of bus stops….. END

    It was a good evening, of course too short to say and to hear everything… I especially liked that it brought together a great mixture of people of different backgrounds (women who supported you as well ;)).

    Are you going to visit us on Thursday, 15 February (Michael Hebbert’s talk: Ten Trees per Person: the Blessing and Curse of New Town Greenery)?

    ME: No I can’t come that day because am busy fighting some planning battles here in London (King’s Cross) and that involves too many evening meetings. He’s a great speaker and I am sure it will be a good evening.


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