Milton Keynes is bidding to be the 2023 European Capital of Culture. We should take it seriously

Look at this cultural hotspot: Milton Keynes in January. Image: Getty.

The British city of Milton Keynes is probably not the most obvious contender for the title of 2023 European Capital of Culture. It hasn’t exactly got a reputation for being a cultural hot spot: jokes about the blandness of Milton Keynes are entrenched in the popular imagination.

In his travel notes, popular writer Bill Bryson’s began by saying “I didn’t hate Milton Keynes immediately” and ended with a plea for the government to order its evacuation in favour of “real cities”. Author JG Ballard’s cleverer barb, “I always suspected that eternity would look like Milton Keynes”, wasn’t meant as a complement either.

Even the local tourism body, Destination MK, resorted to switching the negatives in their latest campaign, to challenge people’s preconceptions about the place.

Destination MK: turning things around. Image: DestinationMK/author provided.

But as researchers in sociology and design who live and work in the city, we think there’s a case to be made for Milton Keynes. It was one of the last “new towns” to be built in the 1960s and as such it represents the political commitment to social justice and mobility which emerged at the end of World War II. This makes it a part of the same social democratic settlement which produced the National Health Service and the Open University.

Because it is new, Milton Keynes doesn’t have the long history of well-funded town hall bureaucracies and city benefactors, which help to create the infrastructures of “high culture” – the galleries, theatres and concert halls. But this shouldn’t knock it out of the running – in fact, it’s one of the reasons that its bid should be taken seriously.

Cultural or corporate?

Milton Keynes Council decided to bid for European Capital of Culture back in July 2015. Since then, a steering group of business, arts and civic and community leaders have held a series of public meetings to shape the bid. At one of these meetings with local artists, the debate circled around how to extend the city’s cultural reach, explore its diversity and improve its reputation.

Many lamented that the early efforts of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to build the town around the unique artefacts, architecture, archaeology and people that were here first have been abandoned in recent years. Instead there is a Nandos. Then another Nandos. And another.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Image: David (MK)/Flickr/creative commons.

The dominance of global mega-brands in the city’s retail centre is hardly unique to Milton Keynes. It is, though, one of the glorious paradoxes of this place, that locals worry a lot about these things. They worry precisely because Milton Keynes wasn’t an accident – it was built with particular aims in mind. It started, just like the Open University that is also based there, as a means to achieving collective, social democratic ends.

Yet in order to survive, both Milton Keynes and the Open University have had to adjust their strategies in response to different government policies over the decades. First there was the monetarist economic theory that came with Thatcherism which prompted a cutback on civic planning and social housing in favour of market-driven individualism. More recently, the government has led a swing toward the principles of capital-driven digital governance, promoting a focus on development in smart cities, apps and self-driving cars.

The Open University: changing with the times. Image: The Open University/Flickr/creative commons.

These changes from one set of priorities to another are feverishly contested by local communities and have been deeply painful for residents, university staff and students. They are the local consequences of the slow decline of government planning, regulation and international cooperation which have also been manifest in global developments such as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the refugee crisis and Britain’s decision to leave the EU.


The city is culture

These political, economic, social and personal catastrophes are integral to understanding culture in a meaningful way. As the late Stuart Hall, formerly professor of sociology at The Open University, argued in his opening editorial to the New Left Review in 1960, the experience of culture in all its forms is “directly relevant to the imaginative resistance of people who have to live within capitalism – the growing points of social discontent, the projections of deeply felt needs”. In other words, culture is everywhere; in the commodities people buy, in the laws that govern corporations, in the ways people develop their identities.

Rather than looking at the culture that takes place in the city, Hall showed that the real task is to understand the city itself as culture. Milton Keynes was meant to be different: it is, as the Capital of Culture bid proposes, “different by design” – and yet that design has come to represent many of the battles between capitalism and culture which are taking place in cities across the world.

The ConversationThe city of Milton Keynes is then, a kind of petri dish, where the sometimes discomforting mixtures of art and commerce, culture and financial capital are laid bare for all to see and experience. As such, it is a powerful guide to the ways that capital is always cultural, and a reminder that culture is always capitalised.

Liz McFall is head of sociology, and Darren Umney a visiting research fellow in design, at the The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.