Fifty years on, has Milton Keynes lived up to its utopian ideals?

A Milton Keynes underpass, yesterday. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”