Sunday, 5 July 2009

In Defence of Milton Keynes

It's an unpleasantly hot Wednesday morning and I'm walking through Milton Keynes on my way to collect a vehicle from an industrial estate in Tilbrook, on the edge of the city. I'm following a path that has been running parrallel to the road leading to the estate, but is now diverging from it in the right direction to hopefully cut a corner off the journey.

Most of the main roads here have no pavements but instead have footpaths set back from them, usually hidden from the motorist's view behind tall hedges or in cuttings.

Milton Keynes often gets a bad press on account of it having all been built in the same modern style, with the main roads running in a utilitarian grid pattern. It's true that there are not many places that seem more devoid of character when viewed from a car window, but on foot it is a different story. You are constantly finding short cuts and coming across spacious, well maintained parks, often with small lakes and interesting statues. Every city has its green and pleasant spots but in Milton Keynes they seem to be casually scattered from one end to the other.

The only niggle I have with this pedestrian network is that the paths, unlike the roads, are rarely as straight as they could be and will often embark upon long unnecessary curves in order to reach the entrances to subways, or to get around the kinds of obstacles that the Romans would have ploughed through without a second thought - small clumps of trees and shrubs, or grassy mounds not big enough to be called hills.

In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson gives this description of the city's footpaths -

'they followed circuitous, seemingly purposeless routes that must have looked pleasing on paper, but gave no consideration to the idea that people, faced with a long walk between houses and shops, would mostly like to get there in a reasonably direct way.'

But given the effort that has gone into the green spaces here, I like to think that rather than a lack of consideration there was a degree of optimism in these Post-war designs - the expectation of a future where peoples' lives would be lived at a relaxed pace, enabling them to stroll happily to their destinations, appreciating the route as they went.

How could those planners have known that today we would be working the longest hours in Europe, and that our poor employers would be having to deal with a level of stress amongst their workers which now apparently results in more lost working days than even the strikes of the Seventies?

How could they have known that one day reasonable people (like me) would look at the graceful curves of their footpaths and see only an unnecessary ten seconds being added on to their day?

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