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Is Milton Keynes beyond redemption?

The Tory philosopher Roger Scruton has written A Plea for Beauty regarding urban planning policy.

Scruton offers the following critique regarding Milton Keynes:

"When the layout of a town is conceived from a master plan, the possibilities for disaster are legion.

"A telling example is the English new town of Milton Keynes, established in 1967 under a plan influenced by the centrifugal concept of the city developed in California by Melvin M. Webber. The resulting sprawl houses a population only two-thirds the size of Florence (a city you can walk across) spread over eighty-eight square miles of aesthetic pollution, absorbing and extinguishing villages, towns, and farms in a tangle of thruways and roundabouts, with the population trapped in little globules between the streams of fast-flowing automobiles.

"The centre of Milton Keynes is recognisable as such only by its superlative ugliness, and it provides the residents with no place of social pilgrimage, no precinct for “hanging out” or being at ease with neighbours; it is simply a place you visit out of necessity when the food runs out."

Aesthetic criticism of Milton Keynes is hardly novel - although Scruton has written it for the American Enterprise Institute and so the readers may not be familiar with it.

In any event Scruton also gives examples of planning failure in the US - especially where "zoning" has meant that "fruitful interaction between work and leisure never occurs."

The point is that Scruton does not believe the situation is hopeless. He goes on to argue:

When aesthetic constraints are obeyed, people also come to hang out. When they are disobeyed, people flee. And where some people hang out, others come to hang out with them. The first aesthetic success is like the broken window, though working in the opposition direction: just as failure breeds failure, success breeds success. This we have seen in Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which has brought people back to the city center, to some extent undoing the destructive work of the modernist Boston City Hall next door. 

Other matters are relevant to the flourishing of a city: education; law enforcement; the circulation of traffic; lighting; public spaces; and the opening of the city to activities like worship, theatrical performance, and sports that require extensive cooperation if they are to emerge. But the lesson to be drawn from the centripetal cities of Europe is that all such matters are far less important than the side constraints that endow a city with its aesthetic identity. Those constraints are the sine qua non of successful urbanization, and their absence has caused the decline and fall of the American city.

Perhaps the urban life of Milton Keynes could be rescued after all.


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