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In Milton Keynes, the UK's Culture War Rages Onward After Brexit

In Milton Keynes, perhaps the most radical of Britain’s post-Second World War “New Towns,” the battle over Brexit and the culture war that it represents is raging hard. There, the consequences of EU immigration policy, of planning instituted by national authority, and of the grassroots yearning to preserve local character have clashed together to shape a platform that may set a precedent for whether central planners or local residents will determine the urban future.

Milton Keynes is unusual for planned cities. Founded in 1967 and having matured in the last few decades, it defies virtually every tenet of contemporary planning orthodoxy. In its day it was a product of Britain’s national planners; despite that, today Milton Keynes drives the country's national planners crazy. Instead of a mixed-use, dense, transit-oriented bastion of urbanism – the predictable and commonly reiterated goals of many British town planning leaders today – Milton Keynes is exactly the opposite, intentionally.

A modernist experiment, Milton Keynes was planned to be low-density. It was also planned to be auto-oriented, and suburban. Its houses are large, its buildings do not front streets, and its transportation modes are separated by grade: that is, they are at different heights, with different means of transport often moving at different speeds. This is the antithesis of the now-favored idea of “complete” streets. The town's downtown shopping enclave is an inward-facing mall – the largest in Britain – with downtown as a whole designed as a business and commercial center rather than a mixed-use playground. Mixed-use development is clustered in the city’s low-density neighborhoods and villages, all on a grid, rather than scattered with the UK’s more favored randomness.

Milton Keynes was designed to be livable and functional, family-friendly, job-friendly and conducive to convenient mobility. The daily grind, by design, was to bear a closer resemblance to a rural experience than to an urban one. Original advertisements promoted a healthy, carefree lifestyle sheathed in nature, away from the nuisances of the big city. Even the logic of its location, equidistant from Britain’s other large cities, sought convenience over traditional planning rationales.

To those with a one-track view of what a city should be, Milton Keynes is unrecognizable. To these people, the city is bland, sterile, and without the day-to-day vibrancy that defines cities. In many planning texts it has been written off as a failure, and to many residents of Britain, Milton Keynes is not a preferred destination.

But in many of the most important metrics that define urban success, Milton Keynes shines. It has virtually no traffic, it attracts lots of families, and it has the highest job growth in the country. Its population has swelled over 20 percent since 2001, over twice the national average, to 255,000 , and its residents ardently defend it. It has built out nearly identically to the original vision, with its millions of trees and lush, anti-urban character earning it the affectionate moniker “Urban Eden”.

Today, however, Milton Keynes faces ever-mounting threats to the integrity of its original character. Thanks to the consequences of EU immigration policy, which spurred population growth in the UK to a level that exceeded housing construction to the tune of 70,000 units a year, or roughly 50 percent, cities like Milton Keynes are under fire to take up their “fair share” of the difference. Although Milton Keynes was originally developed independently through a long-range loan to the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, the nation's housing issue led Britain’s deputy prime minister to effectively lift the city’s self-rule in 2004 in a sweeping authoritarian central takeover.

That move transferred planning authority from local government to a national regeneration authority. The authority promptly set a housing quota for the city based on national targets, and began the task of systematically increasing density, narrowing roads, reducing unit sizes, instilling a transit-oriented ethos, discontinuing the grid, and concocting plans to build new development that directly fronted the street, all at odds with the city’s original masterplan.

The new ideas reflect tenets frequently promoted by the Royal Town Planning Institute, Britain’s central planning body. The moves reflect what has become a familiar narrative of planner as a high-minded savior and opposition as selfish NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) residents, who lack regard for the broader picture. That Milton Keynes’ defenders are arguing on behalf of a thoughtful vision – one shaped decades ago and misaligned with contemporary planners’ aspirations – is a complicating wrinkle. In contrast to the narrative that the suburbs were an unfortunate accident that have destroyed communities, Milton Keynes’ defenders are trying to save a city that was planned to be suburban and that is successful today, and are defending it by citing affection for its character and sense of community.

Because of Milton Keynes’ unusual design, traditional NIMBY dynamics have been inverted. In a rare twist on the oft-repeated Jane Jacobs narrative of residents against the planners, Milton Keynes’ defenders are fighting for the planned suburban character of their town: a primary complaint is that the central planners promoting density and mixed-use development lack creativity or an understanding of the bigger picture vision that shapes their sense of place, even though the tactics the planners are employing are often advocated using the same argument in reverse. Far from being ad-hoc selfish obstructionists, the Milton Keynes defenders are well-organized and thoughtful: a group called “Urban Eden” offers a well-composed six-point vision as the baseline for alternatives to the central plans.

Milton Keynes belies the narrative of a lack of intentionality as a disqualifier for suburbia. More importantly, its future will tell us much about whether creativity and self-determination can continue to exist in Britain at the local scale, and whether the forces that induced Brexit can topple an internal bureaucracy, in addition to an external one.

While local freedoms may ultimately help cities like Milton Keynes preserve their unique character, additional bureaucracy in the UK must be lifted to solve the larger national issue of housing affordability. In particular, Britain should free the private land development market, which has been effectively nationalized since 1947. Britain’s self-imposed shortage of developable land is the primary reason British housing production is well under half what it was when Milton Keynes was originally conceived. In an ironic twist, if it maintains such strict centralized planning strategies, Britain may continue to choke the character of its cities over the issue of housing production, wielding a national-scale bully pulpit to try to solve a crisis that could perhaps best be solved by eliminating the nationalization of property development altogether.

Three years later, Brexit still offers a lesson to planners world-wide, with Milton Keynes a creative case study of an alternative to the hegemony of contemporary urban planning. While many planners loathe Milton Keynes, many residents like it, and its demonstrable successes suggest it should be a worthy case study. So many planning bodies are dominated by a singular ideology. Instead, a new era of open-mindedness to local creativity should be embraced… lest Britain and the world rise up to circumvent the planners behind a movement with a nickname as catchy as Brexit.

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