Rob is an avid traveller and a keen photographer who showcases his work on Flickr and sells his images through Adobe Stock and Shutterstock.
A New Town is Born
The town of Milton Keynes is located in the county of Buckinghamshire approximately 50 miles northwest of London. In 1967, the UK Government determined to establish Milton Keynes as the latest in a string of 'New Towns' established in the decades following the Second World War. A Development Corporation was constituted whose role was to plan the new town and assembly the land using powers devolved to it by the Central Government. This was to be the largest of all the New Towns, and would ultimately end up being the last, as central policy began to shift as Britain entered the 1970's.
New Town Planning
To urbanists, there is something deeply fascinating about the idea of planning an entire town from scratch. Anyone who has ever played city-building simulation computer games such as Sim City and Cities Skylines can’t help but be reminded of the joy of designing a new city for the first time. Planning the housing; the transportation network; the employment centers; the parks; retail and leisure uses. This was all planned in real life by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Milton Keynes even had Britain’s first multiplex cinema.
Derek Walker was one of the architects who worked on the design of the Shopping Building, which was to the retail heart of the town. Heavily influenced by the modernist style of Mies Van Der Rohe, the architects were keen to point out that the Shopping Building was not a shopping centre in the traditional sense. This is apparent to anyone entering the building for the first time. When setting foot in the Shopping Building from either of the southern or northern entrances, one is faced with a linear view ahead of them spanning a distance as far as the eye can see.
Milton Keynes Shopping Building (Centre:MK)
One would think that the entire building is one very long corridor. As the visitor walks on, they would see that the building is actually two parallel shopping corridors connected by central squares at various intervals. At the time of the authors visit, one of these covered squares was occupied by a mini funfair and crazy golf course, and another by a food court.
These linear corridors, or arcades, were, to the architects who designed them, a modern interpretation of the high street and a move away from the more American model of shopping centre design and the insular, claustrophobic shopping precincts of earlier New Towns. The majority of the building features fully glazed facades from ground to ceiling allowing for plenty of natural light to penetrate the interior. The long covered avenues, spanning a length of 700 meters, include internal gardens planted with sub-tropical and temperate trees.
The Shopping Building was opened by Margaret Thatcher, a keen advocate of Milton Keynes, on 25th September 1979. The building was given Grade II listed status in 2010.
New Development in CMK
New, modern forms of development are now springing up in Central Milton Keynes (CMK): hotels, mid-rise apartment buildings, new commercial offices. Whilst not exactly piercing the sky, new development is pushing ever taller with a proposal announced in 2021 for Milton Keynes’ first building to top 100 meters. These new buildings, whilst demonstrating progress of a sorts, are not necessarily in keeping with the utopian architectural vernacular that has made Milton Keynes such an interesting place, architecturally speaking.
The planned grid pattern and wide road make Milton Keynes an ideal place for taller buildings, much like some of the North American cities such as Chicago and New York which started with a similar baseline. It’s quite surprising that the centre of Milton Keynes is still characterised by such low-density development given its proximity to London. It I only 35 minutes by train to the centre of London with a direct train service that passes through the city every 30 minutes.
A Video of Central Milton Keynes
It’s a city centre that feels very quiet – even when it’s supposedly ‘busy’. Around 41,500 people currently work in Central Milton Keynes but only 3,500 live in the central area. There is scope to grow this number massively. The low population results in a lack of overall vibrancy and a lack of animation during weekends and evenings. Growth and development does appear to be coming to the city. Milton Keynes Council have set out the aims for the city in the form of a Strategy to 2050. This sets out the broad framework for how Milton Keynes will grow and develop over the next 30 years.
Planning for Population Growth
Milton Keynes Council expects the population of the city to increase from circa 282,000 to 310,000 by 2031 and to 410,000 by 2050. The downtown centre area has the potential to accommodate a significant proportion of this growth.
The city, like many growing towns and cities, will need to grow in a sustainable manner given the climate emergency that is central to all planning decisions now and in the future. This will generally mean support for development in locations close to public transport networks, close to employment centers and local amenities. This may mean building taller as a more efficient use of land, but this may also change the character of the city too. There will be much soul-searching ahead for the city and its decision-makers.
Whilst the risks of climate change are now front and center of the planning agenda, Milton Keynes does have a history of some unique ‘firsts’. It was the first Council to adopt energy standards in buildings and introduced the UKs first kerbside recycling collection service in 1992. Twenty years before this, Milton Keynes even had the UK’s first solar heated home. Today, Milton Keynes is in the top 5% of Local Authority areas nationally for recycling.
A New Era of Planning
Planning policy can make a major contribution to the climate emergency. The days of designing places around the motor vehicle are now over. Out of town, car-dependent business parks; retail and leisure parks; and sprawling housing estates built on the edges of the town are now a thing of the past. The priority now and for the future is to re-purpose and increase density on under-utilised and brownfield land in sustainable locations close to employment centers, public transport networks and local amenities.
The new developments are probably going to change the aesthetic and character of the town/city but then again, our cities are not museums. I think there's a very interesting decade ahead for CMK.
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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