Can New Towns fulfil their early promise?

Neglect and lack of investment has been the fate of many – a new wave of civic experimentation could allow them to deliver their visionary aspirations at last

Milton Keynes now, but what is the future for it and other New Towns? A new wave of civic experimentation could allow them to deliver.
Milton Keynes now, but what is the future for it and other New Towns? A new wave of civic experimentation could allow them to deliver.

I have an invite to Milton Keynes’ birthday party! She’s 50, and to mark the occasion there’s a season of events, exhibitions and tours in the city, exploring the past, present and future Milton Keynes and the wider New Towns movement.

This turns out to be rare opportunity to ask some interesting questions about the successes and failings what might be called some of the largest urban experiments of all time. In particular, might a form of bottom-up participatory urbanism enable them to deliver on the promise of the good life for many that they made all those decades ago, a promise which because of top-down planning they have been unable to deliver fully. With a little architectural imagination…

As I arrive for one of the anniversary conferences, timed to coincide with the second ever International New Towns Day, the weather is not kind. Brooding June skies are not flattering to Milton Keynes, and the rain has turned the concrete buildings, pavements and flyovers from modernist off-white to heavy brutalist grey. I leave the comfortably large station and move through the formally planned forecourt, into the clearly structured grid-like network of streets that leads up to the centre of the city. To my astonishment I manage to get lost. Three times. It’s so rational that it’s utterly confusing.

And yet I stay dry for the entire walk. Trams and buses have whizzed past continuously, in an abundant river of public transport. It feels busy – like a city centre should – and as a pedestrian I don’t have to interact with a car once.

The conference venue is another surprise. It is in the heart of what’s today known as intu Milton Keynes Shopping Centre (built in 1973 and now grade II listed). It’s a dramatic setting: quadruple height ceilings, held up by open-webbed beams, and curtain wall glazing create a space that is generous and useful without being fussy or expensive. Street furniture, full-size trees, and an entire ecosystem of birds distort perceptions of inside and out – it is a dry, protected street that people really like spending time in. To my mind is one of the few successful examples of an architectural form that takes UK weather seriously.

The stage and seating are delineated from the main thoroughfare by a porous scaffolding structure. Passing shoppers can see and hear what’s going on, meaning that they can and do pop in, shopping bags and trolleys in tow. (Later in the day Olly Wainwright says that recently one of the centre’s architects, Christopher Woodward, confided that he couldn’t bear to go back after it was built. He really should – it’s great.)

  • Started in 1974, Fishermead was the first housing in the central area, looking towards Milton Keynes Shopping Centre.
    Started in 1974, Fishermead was the first housing in the central area, looking towards Milton Keynes Shopping Centre.
  • Housing under construction from Bradville.
    Housing under construction from Bradville.
  • Central Milton Keynes in 1982.
    Central Milton Keynes in 1982.
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New Towns are the historically specific intentional urban environments found across parts of Northern Europe, that grew out of the post-war spirit of optimism and economic boom. In the UK, the 1946 New Towns Act created the context for perhaps the greatest national output of New Towns, seeding 21 instances in the heyday between 1945 and the 1970s, of which Milton Keynes was one. Harlow, Basildon and Peterborough are other examples. They were intended to solve a host of problems, including the devastation wrought on cities by the Second World War and the undesirability of the inner city that was failing to address congestion, pollution and over-crowding. But they were a visionary force too, being fundamentally social democratic in aspiration. At their most idealistic New Towns offered clean air and green landscapes, universal social housing for all rather than on the basis of need, and every amenity you could possibly need within easy reach (the early promotional videos for Thamesmead and Harlow are a great resource for this). 

The idea of new New Towns regularly works its way back into manifesto pledges, and where the conference covers this content it is predictably disappointing. The historical condition of confident political and social narratives that inspired the originals could not be more different from our own. In spite of the exciting challenges and opportunities faced by urbanists, such as longer life spans, alternative lifestyles, environmental degradation and immigration, there is a dearth of vision when it comes to large scale social, political and urban thinking. The early plans for the new Otterpool Park Garden Town, which get discussed very briefly, are all the evidence we need for this.

The much more interesting question is what should happen to the existing New Towns. It is a well-trodden argument that the lived realities of these towns did not live up to their intentions, and indeed many of the New Towns are written off as abject failures. Their singular historical aesthetic fell out of fashion fast, the restrictive zoning created an oppressively suburban condition, and structured industries proved resilient to change. Besides, the inner city came back into fashion, which meant that those who could move away did, turning these balanced communities into deprived ones. New Towns have also often become settler towns, a first stop for incoming immigrants, compounding with prejudice the popular perception that New Towns are failing. This picture is narrow in many respects – Milton Keynes is a steadily growing city for example (13 people per day), loved by its residents, as is Almere in the Netherlands. And many of their design features have been uncontroversially successful, such as public transport systems and green/blue landscapes. However, it is broadly agreed that many New Towns have been neglected and urgently require investment – the question then is what should happen to them?

  • One of Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s adverts.
    One of Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s adverts.
  • How do you get people participating in the city? The Bike Project supplies abandoned bikes to refugees to give them autonomy and a chance to bond with their new city.
    How do you get people participating in the city? The Bike Project supplies abandoned bikes to refugees to give them autonomy and a chance to bond with their new city.
  • The director of city planning for Vantaa, Finland, set out the case for space for participation in urban planning. This is the town market.
    The director of city planning for Vantaa, Finland, set out the case for space for participation in urban planning. This is the town market.
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A couple of presentations do fall back on that depressing dominant narrative in regeneration – the well-worn tropes of ‘a mix of public and private’ and ‘mixed-income communities’.  Per Frolund, working on the regeneration of the region of Gellerup in Aarhaus in The Netherlands, explains how they have been tarting up buildings to attract a wealthier demographic. He explains without flinching that they have demolished five entire blocks of housing ‘to show that we mean business’. On a generous reading, this ‘urban strategy’ is that in an era of low government spending urbanists must court the private sector and make the most of it. On a less generous reading, this is cities being developed purely in pursuit of profit, at the expense of the people who have based their lives there.

But on the other hand, a strong theme of participatory urbanism runs through the day too – projects and strategies that are derived from lived experience, led from within the community at a human and local scale. This civic experimentalism seems to me not only better placed to solve the problems set out but also to contain some of the visionary spirit of the original New Towns.

Some of the presentations were on very bold experiments indeed – real social condenser material. For example, there is Startblok Riekerhaven, an experimental project by the Dutch housing association De Key, which houses a mix of Dutch and refugee youngsters. The ratio is strictly 50:50 so that ‘each refugee has two Dutch neighbours and vice versa’. Some of them were a bit more British about their scope, for example the Bike Project, which aims to get refugees cycling by supplying them with abandoned bikes that are collected by satellites of volunteer groups. Though its aims are modest, its vision is profound, speculating that through cycling, incoming refugees can gain autonomy (financial and personal as well as spatial) and begin to bond with their new city.

Policy makers also spoke about making space for this kind of bottom-up spirit. Tarja Laine, director of city planning for Vantaa, a new town in Finland, made the case that successful urban planning means creating space for participation. John Lewis, head of regeneration at Thamesmead, set out a vision for an inclusive cultural strategy, whereby a tapestry of local cultural happenings means that ‘every person, every day’ has access to something surprising and special.

It is an exciting thought that in New Towns we might be witnessing a new type of urban strategy that is civic and democratic in both means and ends. This of course is very different to where New Towns began, as top-down and establishment planning exercises. Perhaps because they were born of big new ideas, they are uniquely placed to incubate new ones?  Perhaps because they are the antithesis of the bottom-up planning, they elicit a kind of participatory urge in those who live in them?

Architecturally this is really exciting too. What if New Towns committed to decentralisation? What would these town centres start to look like if the large plots were broken up into a smaller grain? What would the homogenous housing become if planning laws were utterly liberalised? Can you begin to transform the mundane zoning patterns with infill development?

I really hope these heads of councils and regeneration teams can see the opportunity that they have before them. If the councillors of Milton Keynes, the Mayor of Vantaa, and the head of Thamesmead regeneration are true to the words they spoke, then those who are able to affect this kind of change appear to be willing to do so. New towns like Milton Keynes might yet fulfil those visionary aspirations that they set out to – at street level this time, rather than from plan view. 

Georgie Day is co-founder of the architectural practice facTOTUM and the housing cooperative Donkey Work.