Urban Future: The Revolt Against Central Planning

Milton Keynes.jpg

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 Keyes 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.

Brexit 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.

Roger Weber is a city planner specializing in global urban and industrial strategy, urban design, zoning, and real estate. He holds a Master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Research interests include fiscal policy, demographics, architecture, housing, and land use.

Flickr photo by Sarah Joy: Double Rainbow, Milton Keynes

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Follow the money.

In the United States, from what I've seen, the "revolt against central planning" is almost entirely mendacious. The lead paragraphs and closing summaries of the articles, and the blurbs and fund-raising materials, all claim to be on the side of embattled localities against federal and state central planners.

Almost without exception, however, the substance is something quite different. Federal and state policy is never criticized, or even mentioned. What is always, always attacked is zoning. The fact that zoning is a local instrument, and not a federal or state instrument, is never acknowledged. Still less is it acknowledged that zoning is the only effective instrument of local control, and the only local defense against big developers and the big, unresponsive governments that big developers buy as a matter of routine. (And also against the big media, whose voice is bought as a matter of routine by big money, and also by big government which buys the voices of large numbers of the big media's market--the simpleminded and intellectually dependent.)

In addition to the direct discussions of "central planning," virtually every article by the "rebels against central planning", regardless of ostensible subject, always has some sort of attack on or negative mention of zoning. Does that smell like an agenda?

Much of the criticism of zoning is based on its undesirable effects in big cities, and some of this criticism may be valid, though I doubt it. The desire of the critics seems to be to fill every city block with "mixed use" skyscrapers built straight up right from the sidewalk. Instead of sky and grass, human needs will be met with some sort of unspecified architecture that is "more human" than current city architecture. (I'm still wondering how such architecture, on a city-wide scale, could ever be anything but a discordant hodgepodge of half-baked concepts, designed by the same architects who conceived the silly post-modern eyesores that already dot big cities, under the excuse that they're a break from the sameness of conventional city architecture. No-one seems to have considered that, where building is on the scale of modern skyscrapers, an unobtrusive, uniform background is much more human than having a different gigantic superfluous stimulus every fifty feet.)

Furthermore, outside the cities, zoning is another matter. It has its idiocies and abuses. But first and foremost, it is the instrument of local self-determination in communities where the governments are much more responsive than those of big cities and states--let alone the federal government. Zoning is also the only local defense against the overwhelming power of large interests in business and government--in fact, the only local defense against abusive central planning. Unaided public outcry, however widespread, is rarely anything but futile where planning policy is concerned.

What poses as a revolt against central planning is not a revolt against central planning. It's an attack, under false pretenses, against any sort of effective public control--and most especially against local control. Current federal policies, and state policies in many states, already strongly favor the agenda held by the interests that claim to be revolting against central planning. This happens to be the agenda favored by big developers and big real-estate speculators. This is why federal and state planning is never, never actually criticized by the "rebels".

The "revolt against central planning" is largely an instrument of big developers, and the planners and experts that developers buy. One of the things developers pay the planners and experts to do is to fill the media with "expert" articles on urbanism. (Further "expertise" is contributed by some small-fry real-estate speculators who portray themselves as people who just happen to have an overpowering enthusiasm for urban policy, while neglecting to mention their business interests.)

The "experts" have gone through a succession of postures, one replacing another with increasing rapidity as it became clear that too many people saw through them. First there was advocacy of overt legal and policy aggression against communities outside the big cities. Then there was "regionalism", which meant regional governments that controlled suburbs and exurbs in the interests of big cities, state governments, and the big money that bought those governments. Then there was the all-out attack advocating the immediate elimination or penalizing of individual transport on environmental grounds, with no recognition of the terrible economic and social disruption such a short-term change would cause.

Now there is the "revolt against central planning".

The one uncompromised constant is the attack on local self-determination.

Like the fabled "rotten mackerel by moonlight", there are some shining and stinking examples of such hackwork. One is the chameleon-like Aaron Renn, who in the last five years or so has gone through most or all of the stages described above. Another is an organization of planners called "Strong Towns", whose specialty, under a thin veneer of other topics, is providing quotes from "authoritative experts" for use in attacks on individual transport options. A third is the "New Urbs" blog at The American Conservative, which is financed (through a foundation) by the Driehaus hedge funds.

The hacks clearly aren't fooling anyone except the donors who finance them. They remind one of the Republican party establishment, which concentrated so single-mindedly on milking big donors that they lost their voters.

It would be nice to see a real revolt against central planning. But the big money for planners is in big state, federal, and "regional" projects. So I don't look for that revolt to be led by planners. The natural leaders would be municipal officials and state legislators elected by local groups who regard the abuses of central planning as a key issue. Eventually, they could elect governors and congresspeople. They will be fighting big money every inch of the way.


I see that my comment could have been clearer on some points.

I should have said: "In the United States, from what I've seen, the 'revolt against central planning' among urbanists is almost entirely mendacious."

The resistance to central planning has been going on all along, conducted by local governments and local populations. That is to say, by those local governments that tend to be responsive to their local populations. That is to say, in the suburbs and exurbs. In governments of larger entities--big cities, states, and federal--there are always big interests present that can buy their way to influence that overpowers that of the voters.

Every inch of the way, that resistance has had to fight big business, big government, the media--and planners. The most specious, the most powerful, and the most widely heard planners are those that get lots of money from big business and big government.

For the people who have been fighting central planning all along, planners, however they may package themselves, are a small and not indispensable part of the solution, and a large and increasingly in-your-face part of the problem.

For small governments and communities, hiring a planner will always carry the same sort of risks that are run by anyone who hires a lawyer. These risks include very serious conflicts of interest, aggravated by connections among those in the planning business, and their own likely long-term career plans. Those risks may easily outweigh the benefits of hiring planners. The very existence of a well-defined business specialty in "planning" is a major complication to every aspect of the issue.

The real way forward on issues of "urbanism" is to return the floor to the people, not the "experts".