The walk from Milton Keynes train station to the ‘Centre’, the Buckinghamshire new town’s enclosed shopping centre, is the same distance as from London’s Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road. The difference between these two ambles is people: the latter has more than 10,000 per square kilometre, the former has just 728.
It may seem rather trite to compare London with Milton Keynes; however, it is simple but integral things like lack of human interaction that is forcing Milton Keynes, now entering its fourth decade, to change.
In 1967, Milton Keynes was designated under the New Towns Act of 1946. Two years later, Llewellyn-Davies, Weeks, Forestier- Walker and Bor drew up a masterplan that amalgamated three towns and 13 villages to form a city of 250,000 people. In keeping with the New Towns Act, densities were strictly regulated and encouraged a maximum residential density of 17 dwellings per hectare.
Perhaps this goal was too successful – statistics from the 2001 Census show that central Milton Keynes has a staggeringly low residential density of 5.3 people per hectare, due to its predominantly commercial tenants. It’s so desolate that, in 2003, then deputy prime minister John Prescott designated the town as a target growth area as part of his Sustainable Communities Plan.
Three years later, in 2006, English Partnerships employed masterplanner EDAW to draw up Vision 2031, which set out proposals to increase the population of the town from its current 224,000 to 380,000 by 2031 by increasing density and expanding east and west. As a resident for the last 13 years Andrew Jones, EDAW director of operations, knows all too well how revered and iconic Milton Keynes and its grid system are. But in his eyes, too much commitment to that ideal is strangling growth.
‘We tried to strike the right balance in keeping points of the original plan while making it more sustainable,’ he says. ‘One of the key changes is making it easier for people to use public transport. We want to connect the isolated estates with transportation systems, and provide self-sustainable larger estates with their own shops, cafés and bars.’
Other local agencies support this plan. Architecture MK (AMK), founded by Milton Keynes Council to oversee the design and implementation of proposed buildings, backs EDAW. AMK head Andrew Armes adds: ‘We are trying to get people into the middle of the city – at the moment trying to build at higher densities in the suburbs is heresy.
‘Developments like Glenn Howells Architects’ Hub well exceed the town’s fivestorey height limit but will introduce more bars and cafés. At the moment, after 9.30pm when the shops shut, there’s nothing there.’