A thousand years from now, when historians gaze down at the ruins of ancient Britain, they might learn there was once a city that tried to change the way urban spaces looked and functioned.
Milton Keynes turned 50 yesterday. Carved into the heart of Buckinghamshire, it has attracted admiration from abroad, even while it was being derided at home. For the Chinese and Spanish, it is an example to be followed, a beacon of progressive urban planning. For Brits, it provides good material for standup comedy routines.
At its foundation in 1967, the city’s original goal was to ease London’s overcrowding. It promised a slice of the British dream: the opportunity to raise a family amongst a tight-knit community, in good-quality housing at a price people could afford.
I had never been to Milton Keynes: in over a decade living in London there had never been a reason to go. And when I arrived at the city's central train station, one of the first things I noticed was the vastness of the place. Its founders had had a fascination with two things: American cities and cars. They thus created a US-style grid system, one which allows for unusually wide roads.
But what the city lacks in sidewalks, it more than makes up for in parking spaces: more than 20,000 of them. And let's not forget the ubiquitous roundabouts for which the city is known: an estimated 130. Its traffic, however, is almost free-flowing.
Still, for all the lofty principals Milton Keynes was founded upon, there is something eerie and drab about the place. The lack of people out on the streets, the concrete structures, the colourlessness, the grey weather: the city would make the perfect setting for George Orwell’s 1984.
“Community without propinquity.” That was the mantra of American planning theorist Melvin M. Webber, widely regarded as the “father of Milton Keynes”. It alludes to the advent of telecommunications and cars, making people boundlessly mobile. Against this backdrop, the notion of a compact city with a well defined centre was no longer thought relevant.
The locals I spoke to know their city is not able to compete with places like Liverpool, Nottingham or Hull when it comes to history. Perhaps it never will. But they also know they have a lot to be thankful for.
Gill Prince is a local photographer involved in the Unexpected: MK project, which aims to challenge pre-conceived notions of Milton Keynes. Born in Bath but an MK resident for the past 25 years, Prince speaks with something akin to reverence about the city where she was able to set up her own business and raise a family.
Milton Keynes “is an ongoing process, but I think we are a lot better than what people give us credit for,” she tells me. “We do have a sense of community. There are so many clubs and so many activities going on that it becomes very easy to find like-minded people.”
As the country grapples with a severe housing shortage, ministers have announced the development of 14 new garden cities. Based in part on the model set out by Milton Keynes, which contains an estimated 23m trees within its city boundaries, the new developments could provide 48,000 new homes in the coming years.
But the city’s council leader, Peter Marland, warns that emulating Milton Keynes' vision won't be done easily, if at all. “Milton Keynes is unique and will remain unique,” Marland tells me when we meet at his office. “It was built on a disperse grid system, it’s low density, so the number of houses we created would probably be below what is needed now.”
This concept of the ideal city is as old as history itself, but as my day in Milton Keynes comes to an end I find myself thinking about it. Other than greatly improving people’s living conditions, what else has Milton Keynes done for the people in it? Is material wealth all a city should aim to provide its residents? And if everyone is prospering, and driving nice cars and living in nice houses, is there a reason to create a community, especially in the age of the internet and social media?
The old village of Milton Keynes in 1968. Image: Getty.
Lee Scriven, 58, remembers moving from London back in 1974 with only “the promise of a brand new city.”
“Just couple of rows of houses,” he tells me. “The reality was that I had made it to Milton Keynes but Milton Keynes had not been made.” The writer and photographer speaks fondly of a Labour government who felt “duty-bound to provide its citizens with a new city to ease the housing shortage then”.
Fifty years on, the housing crisis is back. Milton Keynes, however, has evolved from “a couple of rows of houses” to a city of more than a quarter of a million people.
So has the city fulfilled what it set out to accomplish?
“If you expected Milton Keynes to provide a better way of life for families, then it completely succeeded,” Scriven tells me. “If you are expecting it to become a city like Bristol, Liverpool, or Hull, that’s going to take years.”
Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.