At 50 – Why the Milton Keynes Neighbourhood Unit Failed

So Mk is 50 today.

It was a bold experiment – the first attempt in the UK to develop a whole New Town on a formal grid, backed by probably the most formidable consultancy team ever assembled in England.

As someone who wrote there thesis on MK and does new town planning around the world understanding the strengths and weaknesses of MK is essential as a case study for every urban planner.

By the 1960s the grid was back in fashion as an organising unit for urban planning.  This was of course the age of Doxiadis with his plans for Islamamab & Riyadh.  The concept was that of a multilayered grid across the whole city serving different sizes of community – it would expand overtime in linear corridors with the lowest level of community roughly corresponding to the Clarence Perry Neighbourhood Unit.

This was clearly influential on Forrestor, Weeks and Bor in the Masterplan for MK.  It has served the city well.  The fundamental extend-ability of the Grid, as emphasized in the work of the Lincoln Land Institute on high growth cities has served it well.

Much has been written about the influence of Melvin Webber and the ‘non place urban realm’ where people would zip by car from place to place and where traditional communities would not matter.  I think this has been overestimated.  It certainly contributed to a neglect of public transport networks but no more than anywhere else planned in the 60s and 70s.  Milton Keyne’s masterplanning was clearly dominated by its thinking about propinquity and the neighbourhood unit.  This was most evident of the ‘man in black’ Francis Tibbalds who was tasked with solving the fundamental dilemma of the Perry Type neighborhood Unit, by placing services at their centres their edges became desiccated of people with roads acting as barriers between internally well connected neighbourhoods poorly connected to surrounding neighbourhoods.

As is well documented by Micheal Edwards who was part of that team Tibbald’s solution was brilliant and so well drawn it was presented straight to the development corporation board.  Rather than connector roads as barriers neighbourhood centres would be built around their intersections and traffic would be slowed at these centres.  The traffic engineers resisted it however and the concept was undermined by a Green Grid which created mounds and tree lined barriers along the main roads.  It is something of an urban design dogma that rod grids, people grids and green grids should always align, where they separate and interact are almost always the interesting places in any city.  What should have happened would have been for the green grid to separate and interpenetrate the neighbourhoods.

Tibbalds was ahead of his time, Link-Place-Node thinking now emphasises that the speed and function of a road can vary along its length.

Planning a city of grid blocks looking inwards is so easy it is the predominant form of urban planning around the world, characterised by the Chinese Superblock and its soviet equivalent the ‘microdistrict’, and the horrific monotony of design it produces with similar to MK but at far higher densities, especially when combined with a Gropius like obsession with slab blocks over perimeter blocks.

The Failed Chinese Superblock Model

The Failed Chinese Superblock Model

As soon as cities vary in density and land use within a neighbourhood unit they must vary in size to accommodate the varying catchments of its services.  Now we can use parametric and GIS based techniques to model this precisely.  A grid block doesnt need major collector roads on all sides – that provides too much road capacity.  The priority for cities of MK size and above should be too develop linear growth corridors served by BRT with high density nodes along them.  Grids should be more informal with their basic ordering unit being small superblocks/Perimeter blocks forming clusters inside which traffic should be discouraged.  The dogma that all neighbourhoods should be challenged, in many cases it will be driven by local drainage patterns/topography so that sponge city/green infra networks dictate neighborhood shape.  Also  square blocks are inefficient compared to slightly rectangular ones, that enables much greater cariation of local open space/street/place form as tesselations interact and intersect.  Hexangonal grids, if you can provide them, are also far more efficient in terms of infrastructure provision.

The Core ordering element in the city is the block not the grid

The Core ordering element in the city is the block not the grid

This kind of thinking about grids tends to produce city forms like this

A winning competition entry from 2010 in Moscow where all of the entrants had very similar thinking about grid form – which shows there a trend going on.

The Flawed Economic Premise of the Wolfson Road Use Prize

The latest Wolfson Prize seems deeply flawed to me because it assumes the premise of transport policy is to build roads and the problems of transport policy is how we pay for roads.

How can we pay for better, safer, more reliable roads in a way that is fair to road users and good for the economy and the environment?”

The assumption appearing to be a Chris Graying like one that road users are car users.

No the economic purpose of roads is to provide a ‘Transport Service’to get from A to B.

However the amount a society has to pay for this transport service is not an economic good, it is a deadweight loss which measures the loss to the economy of having to transport goods or people from A to B because the co-location of A to B is geographically inefficient – we are forced to travel.  Of course the fact that all land uses cannot be stacked like angels on the head of the most accessible point means we have to travel, and the arrangement of land uses and transport networks is the art and science of minimising this loss.

Given that we can minimise the loss by providing a transport service from A to B to minimise the total time society takes between A and B.  That includes all users of the total transport system between A and B including the opportunity costs of those deterred from travelling.

We know from the work of Dupuit that the market price of say a toll will be inefficient because it is not the marginal cost of travel – but includes an extractive ricardian rent caused by the monopoly of road ownership.

Charging a road price based on congestion and reinvesting it in public transport helps, but congestion is often a poor measure of the transport service forgone.  A better measure is the gap between an efficient transport network, which moves people the most efficiently for least cost, and the current inefficient one.  Congestion as Mogridge argued in Jam Yesterday Jam Today is inevitable in successful cities and a raw cost of congestion’ assumes that the ideal situation is one where anyone can travel as fast as possible from A to B at no cost – an impossibility.

We know from the Downs-Thompson Paradox that the only way to increase road speeds is to increase the equilibrium speed of public transport, and from the Lewis-Mogridge position that building roads simply leads to them clogging up and increasing welfare loss.  We also know from Braess’s theorem that adding roadspace to congested networks increases journey time and taking them away reduces it.  I recently tested this in a complex traffic model for a new city, and contrary to the prior warnings of the traffic engineers the only way to valence the network was to take away car links and add public transport only links.

Given all of this the best way to charge for road space is based on the inverse of the non public transport service that the road offers and to spend proceeds on improving those services on that link.  That is if  road has plentiful cycleways, pedestrian facilities and bus routes on it it should be free of a charge, however if it is a pure car and truck based road then it will be able to move far fewer people and should be subject to a much higher charge. For example the Dubai metro manages to move as many people as the parallel 16 lane highway.  The paradox here is that drivers would be attracted to congested slow moving roads – so what congestion per-se is not the problem but a lack of none car capacity.     It is much better that traffic moves slowly to enable a mixing of modes – Copenhagen style – the mixing that improves transport services, it is also better to raise most funds on arterial roads designed only for cars to fund facilities like bus rapid transit – South American Style -that can most cost effectively improve transport services.

Spending on complete streets approaches would gain support because drivers would be charged less on such roads, and spending on simply expanding roads without modal choice would be less popular as drivers would spend more.  This leaves a final question, how to set the charge.  Theoretically the ideal level of charge is the funding cost calculated to present value of the cost of upgrading the public transport/cycling/walking on a link so that equilibrium speeds are maintained across a network before that link is added

Is it worth Ministers Picking a Fight on the Green Belt?

Last year (Nov 22nd) Javid was briefing the Daily Mail that:

Thousands of homes could be built on the green belt if local authorities offer up other land to create new protected areas.

Ministers are understood to be examining the green belt ‘land swaps’ proposal for inclusion in an upcoming white paper to help solve the housing crisis.

Green belt swaps would only be allowed if councils offer to designate other land as green belt space.

 Thousands of homes could be built on the green belt if local authorities offer up other land to create new protected areas

The plan is likely to be met with stiff opposition from MPs however, with critics warning that it will threaten Britain’s countryside and lead to urban sprawl.

And similarly to Telegraph:

Ministers will next month publicly back building thousands of houses on green belt land despite a growing Tory rebellion and concerns from environmental campaigners.

The Sunday Telegraph understands the Government will encourage the use of “green belt swaps” in a white paper to help solve the housing crisis.

The scheme allows councils to remove protections on one part of green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere.

Critics says the change could transform Britain’s countryside by allowing thousands of homes to be built on protected land and watering down the original definition of green belt.

However ministers believe the swaps are a sensitive way of protecting rural land while giving councils the powers to hit ambitious housing targets.

Sajid Javid, the Local Government Secretary, indicated his support in a speech this week as he called on MPs not to oppose building on green belt outright.

But that speech to IHBC was not about Green Belt swaps but Brum’s decision to delete Green Belt without a swap, being underbounded it had no land to compensate.

Where local councils come forward with sensible, robust local plans – and are willing to take the tough decisions – I will back them all the way.

For example, Birmingham City Council has put forward a plan to meet some of its local housing need by removing green belt designation from a small area of land.

The plan is supported by the independent Planning Inspectorate.

But it’s fundamentally a local decision made by local people.

They’ve looked at all the options. They’ve considered all the implications.

They want to build homes for their children and grandchildren.

And Westminster politicians should not stand in the way of that.

That’s why, earlier today, we lifted the central government hold on the Birmingham Local Plan.

The idea of a ‘swap’ has occurred to numerous politicians, whether Prescott, Osborne, Javid or Andy Burnham when they wish to ease the pain of Green Belt release.

But rarely to authorities on the inner edge of Green Belt have non Green Belt land to swap, and under National Planning Policy the new Green Belt needs to have an exceptional circumstance and serve a Green Belt purpose.  Unless that is around a new settlement or major urban extension it wont pass the test.

Therefore a general Green Belt swap policy would make the land shortage for housing worse not better.  It appears to have been quietly dropped from the housing Green/White paper.  Good.  It is not worth picking a fight with numerous MPs and Cabinet colleagues giving the impression of a general roll back of the Green Belt.  It is much better to champion specific loss of Green Belt in specific locations where it makes sense.  What matters is whether National Policy provides a coherent framework for managing the overspill from large cities where Brownfield sites fall short – as they do in every region.

Under the laissez-faire approach of the NPPF if an area falls short it needs to begin a process to negotiate how the shortfall will be resolved with neighbours.  It can under the Boles doctrine treat the GB as a çonstraint’but as we have pointed out many times here that risks a failure under the DTC legal and/or soundness principles – as St Albans and Castelpoint have found recently to their cost.

This leaves, especially around London and Birmingham a huge overspill.  One suspects the scale of GB loss around Greater Manchester will be reduced leading to overpill pressure in Cheshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire.

The theory of the NPPF was this would eventually be worked through under the DTC, the trouble is we have found it takes years with no structure to resolve.

The LPEG report in a uturn acknowledged that corridor and strategic studies would be needed to resolve the overspill.  Only Greater Brum so far  is responding with a study and with no mechanism other than unanimity to resolve it.

Traditionally of course the means of resolving overspill beyond the Green Belt was new settlements.  The trouble is now the Green Belt around London having grown from 7-10 miles wide to 40-50 in some locations pushes development out too far.  For example in new towns Hemel Hempstead and Basildon land earmarked in masterplans for last stage expansion was washed over with Green Belt expansions by County Councils keen to shut down the New Towns early.  In both cases we have classic examples of none cooperation by neighbouring authorities.  However in the Basildon case the backing by the dept of Dunton Garden Village seems designed to overcome the empass and it passed with barely a mumor on the national media stage.  This shows that targeted positive intervention by the SoS is likely to be much more effective that swepping none specific interventions against the tightness of the GB generally.

The acid test for the housing green/white paper is whether it provides a strateguic solution to housing oversill beyond the Green Belt, joined up with transport proposals.  The Oxford-Cambridge Arc (previously known as MKSM) is an obvious starting point.  The problem is May doesnt seem to like Garden Cities, for the very petty reason that Osborne backed Ebbsfleet Garden City and it didnt deliver despite the fact that post designation because of previous non-delivery it will this year produce more housing completions than anywhere else in England (600+) this leads to the great risk that the housing paper will not have a clear solution to the problem of insufficient housing land on the outside of the GB other than carrying on with the unsustainable solution of grating ever larger urban extensions and village extensions in locations without public trsnasport everywhere and anywhere and usually on appeal.