Updated date:

Planning a New Town of the Future: Milton Keynes

Rob is an avid traveller and self-confessed 'man of the world' who is passionate about his home city, Manchester, and travelling the world.

Birth of a New Town

Milton Keynes is a city located in the county of Buckinghamshire in the southeast of England, approximately 50 miles northwest of London. The UK government took the decision to make Milton Keynes a New Town in 1967. A Development Corporation was established and land was assembled.

Milton Keynes, named after an existing small village, was to be the largest of the New Towns created following the end of the Second World War. The town was planned to have a population of 250,000 people, which it has now achieved although it took almost 50 years to get there. Milton Keynes would also end up being the largest of the New Towns and also the last.

Central Milton Keynes Design Ethos

Central Milton Keynes Design Ethos

A central planning team, comprised of young architects, all under the age of 40, and schooled in the visionary architecture of Le Corbusier and his ‘Toward an Architecture’ philosophy, and the minimalist modernism of Mies Van Der Rohe and the brutalist power couple The Smithsons, whose infamous Robin Hood Gardens housing scheme would be under construction at the time that Milton Keynes was being planned.

Central MK

Central MK

Masterplan and Design Ethos

Under the leadership of the affectionately nicknamed, ‘father of the city,’ Derek Walker, as Chief Architect of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, a masterplan was approved in 1970. The masterplan set out a plan for the town to be centred around a grid of streets and boulevards approximately two kilometres long by 1 kilometer wide.

Unusual for the time, the entire masterplan worked on the metric system rather than the British imperial system which was still favoured and in general use at the time. This reflected the forward-looking, futuristic design philosophy underpinning the planning of the town.

Centre:MK

Centre:MK

The town was designed from the start to be a forest city that is greener than the surrounding countryside. Millions of trees were planted by the Development Company right from the town’s inception. Today, the Council is proud to label Milton Keynes, quite rightly, as a city of trees.

Key streets in the city include Midsummer Boulevard, Silbury Avenue and Avesbury Avenue with these internal streets bound by a ‘ring road,’ including Portway and Childs Way, with their networks of roundabouts and pedestrian bridges floating above.

Interior Gardens in the Shopping Building (Centre:MK)

Interior Gardens in the Shopping Building (Centre:MK)

Navigating Milton Keynes

Pedestrians in Milton Keynes are confined to car-free walkways and concrete underpasses. It is possible to traverse all of central Milton Keynes on foot without having to walk along a highway. This makes for an ideal location to trial the use of e-scooters which is proving to be very popular in the city. MK was the first city in the UK to trial commercial scooter hire.

The grid system layout doesn’t feel particularly English, although the seas of surface car paring is a common scene repeated across almost all towns and cities planned during the second half of the twentieth century.

Midsummer Boulevard: one of the key streets as part of the grid of Central Milton Keynes

Midsummer Boulevard: one of the key streets as part of the grid of Central Milton Keynes

Many of the roads don’t even have footpaths which, for a first-time visitor used to expect such amenity, feels intuitively alien. Instead, there are dozens upon dozens of uniform crossing points where pedestrians are expected to wait for a gap in the traffic in order to cross the road. Each crossing point is uniformly designed with these black overhanging canopies that serve to protect the public from the rain whilst waiting to cross the road.

There are no formal or informal zebra crossings or signalled pedestrian crossings. However, there are dropped kerbs that allow for bicycles, pushchairs and mobility aids. In some places, there are even signs warning that pedestrians do not have priority – which one could read as the entire planning philosophy underpinning the design of central Milton Keynes.

A pedestrian crossing place in Central MK

A pedestrian crossing place in Central MK

It is very easy to get around central Milton Keynes (referred to by the Council and its partners as CMK): on foot, by bus and by car. Milton Keynes New Town was planned during an age when the general consensus was that the car is king and that cities needed to be planned to accommodate both the car and also plentiful car parking. However, the roads in Milton Keynes are now starting to be become congested, which impacts the reliability of the bus service and makes the pedestrian experience more unpleasant.

Original bus stop design in Central Milton Keynes

Original bus stop design in Central Milton Keynes

The wide streets and low-rise buildings make it a relatively easy place to navigate. This, together with the flat topography means that it’s easy to get one's bearings and to see far into the distance. However, distances can often feel longer than they really are as a result of the large car parks that often need to be traversed by foot to get from one part of the city to the other. Whilst the network of underpasses will keep people away from general traffic, it can often feel like one is going out of their way to get from A to B.

State Planning vs Private Enterprise

The utopian architectural vision for Milton Keynes didn’t quite come to pass in its entirety due to a combination of changes to the UK Government, the economic climate, and the resulting changes to socio-economic policy in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The role of the State was scaled back with an emphasis placed firmly on private enterprise. It was this that so enraptured the Conservative Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, who would often be seen for photo opportunities proclaiming the enterprising spirit of Milton Keynes.

One could be hard-pressed to locate the true centre, or heart, of CMK. It is difficult to escape the feeling that everything has been planned and organised. There’s a perceived lack of any development happening organically and an absence of spontaneity. This is an observation common in many New Towns where there aren’t hundreds of years of history sown into the city streets. Milton Keynes was masterplanned in its entirety and that’s part of the attraction in what makes the city so fascinating to urbanists.

New developments under construction at Central:MK

New developments under construction at Central:MK

Further Reading

  • The Redevelopment of Birmingham City Centre
    A look at some of the recent changes to the built environment in Birmingham, a city that is trying to shake off its tag of being an ugly concrete city with wide roads, dull architecture and a lack of attractive spaces for walking and cycling.
  • Top 10 Brutalist Buildings Still Standing in the UK
    Here, we take a look at some of the finest examples of brutalist architecture built in the UK during the mid-20th-century modernist period. We'll examine 10 iconic buildings that span two decades between 1958 and 1978 which have managed to escape the

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Robert Clarke

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 26, 2021:

That I completely agree.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 26, 2021:

Very informative. Thanks.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 26, 2021:

Very informative. Thanks.

Related Articles