Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Milton Keynes: Britain Does America

After World War II, London was maimed; its housing stock was severely depleted from the Blitz (especially in the East), and much of what remained was Victorian-era near-slums with no running water or facilities. To cope with this capital crunch, the British government dutifully scripted a plan to move 1.5m of London's residents to 28 master-planned new and expanded towns that were to be built outside of London. The largest and most well-known of these is Milton Keynes.

Having read about it in Bill Bryson's "Notes From a Small Island", I decided I needed to see this city that so offended my favourite author. Britain is, after all, the home of Edinburgh's famous and universally-loved New Town, and the government is largely run by MPs from North of Hadrian's Wall. I went through my rolodex of urbanist friends (numbering one) and Alexi and I set off on our 1960s utopian adventure this weekend.

The design of mk (as it is hiply trying to rebrand itself) is such: a business centre core of gridded streets, surrounded by many dozens of interlinked neighbourhoods, each approximately one kilometre square, and designed to have a local village centre, church and school so the residents could remain near to home for most needs. All the major streets run around these neighbourhoods, not through them, so roughly speaking you have a checkerboard pattern. The roads all have two names - their Christian names and then either an H or V (for horizontal and vertical) and a number, starting with one in the North/West and increasing as you go East/South.

Seems innocuous enough.

Well. I am considering suing the British government for not erecting warning signs upon entering Greater Milton Keynes to keep away. The city is inexplicably soulless, lacks any sort of vibrancy, charm, character or anything that could possibly endear you to it. Pick a large American city of your choice. Now pick out a nondescript, heartless business park in one of its exurbs. Surround that with parking. Now, if you've chosen a Midwestern city you're on a good course, as now you should surround that parking with acres and acres of identical, uninviting brick housing on streets which seem to take their improbable and misleading names from fairy tales.

Welcome to Milton Keynes.

Though they have one-upped themselves, for the city has the misfortune of having its roots in 1960s Britain, a decade where it was each architect's sole intent to inflict shame and heartache onto whichever city they were casting their pox upon. As such, much of the downtown and the inner ring of housing is unforgivable, a shocking amount of it built out of cement. You can drive for miles (which you must, even to buy a pint of milk) without seeing a single person engaged in their lives outside of a car. The City Centre is lifeless and lined with chain pubs and restaurants from bottom to top (there are even two Wetherpoons across from one another so you don't have to be inconvenienced with crossing the street for your Fosters or Stella), and then crowned with an outsized shopping mall (the longest in Europe!) so everyone can park their cars and then wander its "arcades" rather than the streets of its surrounding neighbourhood.

My litmus test for any city I visit is, of course, its gay life. As a joke, I sent out one of the pictures enclosed below to some friends when we arrived in the city with the tagline "Excuse me, is this a gay bar?" as it was brashly in-your-face, decked out in rainbow flags as if it were on Castro & 18th. Turns out it was more prescient than humorous. This "gay, lesbian, transgender" bar was 50% straight women, 25% straight men and 25% GLBT. Once more, Milton Keynes managed to disappoint and offend.

Perhaps I am harsher than others might be; obviously many people like living there - 8 in 10 residents are pleased with their lives, according to the propaganda materials. But for me it brought back everything I loathed about where I grew up. The whole time I was there I was uncomfortable, a sort of irrational fear of being trapped again: "What if I get stuck here? What if I have to live somewhere like this again?". Thankfully, we found our way to the A4146, to the lovely Leighton Buzzard, where we had lunch, and onward safely to London. Shadwell has never looked so good.

In summary: if proximity to London weren't a consideration, I would sooner live in Middlesbrough.

Firmly Old City,

01) The grid system lives outside Manhattan

02) Excuse me, is this a gay bar?

03) The hustle & bustle of central Milton Keyes

04) Art for the mind & spirit

05) Ah, who can resist faux TexMex d├ęcor and enchiladas in sweet & sour sauce?

06) A little vernacular reminiscence

07) MK is well-known for its pedestrian tunnels, ensuring motorists never have to be inconvenienced by foot traffic

08) MK's natural surroundings

09) I say, we could hardly move, it was bumper to bumper!

10) The 'city' takes its name from one of the towns it devoured. Here is the old pub in old Milton Keynes Village. It's from 1952.

11) The British dream realised

12) Original Milton Keynes at its best

13) No wait, this is its best; who wouldn't want a home built of concrete bricks?!

14) Leighton Buzzard, a gorgeously-named historic, organic market town, just South of MK

15) Apparently, they are better at architecture than spelling in Leighton Buzzard

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