As someone who grew up in Milton Keynes, I have spent more than my fair share of time justifying its existence. As the new town celebrates its fiftieth birthday, at no time has it been more apt for me to sing my hometown’s praise with a look at what new Garden Town developments can learn from their older and wiser sibling:
Embrace your oddities and make them your own
Concrete cows; World War Two code breakers; the oldest working iron bridge in the world; named in the Domesday Book (yes, really!); Britain’s first multiplex cinema; a listed shopping centre; and now the testing ground for driverless cars in the UK – Milton Keynes is an array of oddities and contradictions, and that is its charm. The Garden City that got it right, it is now facing a more uncertain mid-life, one where it will need to fight to keep its hipster credentials.
Britain’s fastest-growing ‘city’ is not even technically a city, but the fact that its residents continue to call it one is testament to the Milton Keynes mindset – don’t let the doubters bring you down.
Give yourself breathing room
Most people’s experience of Milton Keynes is the grid system and roundabouts, of which they are scathing. However, the convenience of this road system is more often overlooked – in what other urban location could you travel ten miles through its centre in under 15 minutes? The wide boulevards enable road users to travel easily through the town, from the built up centre of low-rise glass and steel structures, past grassy banks with housing tucked behind, to the many leafy villages and towns that make up the wider borough.
At no point in Milton Keynes are you ever more than half a mile from a park, home to some of the 22 million trees and shrubs in the town. Milton Keynes’ greenery is a vital part of its makeup and its residents’ quality-of-life, and the twenty-five year-old Parks Trust charity was set up to ensure the greenery that makes up about 25 percent of the new town area is protected and maintained for future generations.
Help your residents to move unencumbered
The architects of Milton Keynes had outstanding foresight when designing the undulating grid road network that runs throughout the town, effectively avoiding the rush-hour traffic-jams that blight most city centres. Alongside this is the often-unseen backbone of Milton Keynes – the 190 miles of cycle paths, known as Redways, which run throughout the town.
An overarching transport strategy that encapsulates public transport, private vehicles and bicycles is vital in providing residents with a means of moving around unencumbered and should be implemented into new developments from the beginning. Unfortunately, the public transport offering in Milton Keynes is inferior to its road network – in some parts of Milton Keynes you can only travel to the town centre on a Sunday by public bus once a month; one bus there and one bus back.
Culture is organic
You can build theatres and sports venues, and yes they will come, but authentic culture is nurtured and grown, not built. The shocking oversight to use Milton Keynes Stadium as an Olympic venue shows that just because something is built doesn’t mean that its positive reception is a done thing. The acceptance of the MK Dons football team (bought from the failing Wimbledon) is a slow process. That their huge stadium intentionally only has seats two thirds up the stadium is evidence of the aspirations of Milton Keynes and the success and growth it expects.
That said, some of the most famous musicians on the planet have played at the nearby Milton Keynes Bowl, pulling in record crowds. Perhaps it won’t be long before Milton Keynes Stadium rivals Wembley and Old Trafford for enticing headline acts. And with 200 public works of art around the town, as well as scheduled ancient monuments, there is an opportunity to enjoy something cultural literally around every corner.
It is imperative to have a cultural core to your development, nurturing culture and giving it an opportunity to thrive and grow, sometimes over a period of fifty years.
A location for business
Milton Keynes encourages growth through its modern buildings that businesses can afford to be based in as well as expand from. As well as TMT companies based at these commercial buildings, nearby light-industrial estates are a haven for technology and automotive companies.
The benefits to business don’t just stop at office space either. In terms of retail, Milton Keynes is arguably one of the few places that has got the balance between town centre shopping and out-of-town retail parks right.
The shining light
But alongside this forward-looking growth, Milton Keynes has an ancient secret: early in the town’s design, the developers realised that if angled a few degrees around, the midsummer sun would shine through the centre of the town. As a result, every year the aptly named Midsummer Boulevard is lit up at the summer solstice. Proof, if we needed it, that developers are in a privileged position to create forward-looking developments that support and embrace their surroundings.