How can you build efficient Urban communities, homes, and businesses?

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Reflections from UK 'New Cities'


I currently live and work in Milton Keynes, a UK new model city, or something like that, built 51 years ago.  It was the first UK city to be built on a grid system, similar to US cities.  Having lived there for a couple of years I've been able to experience exactly how a newly constructed city can be good and bad.  I've included this in transport because transport features quite heavily in my criticism and also I work in the transport industry and can provide insight and information that non-industry people can't.  My background is transport planning and air pollution.  I currently work for a company that helps small businesses tap into the demand for new mobility services in the transport sector.

Land Use:  MK has highly segregated land use.  Shops are nowhere near where people live.  This is manageable if you have a car but is far from ideal.  This is even more of an issue for social land uses such as pubs, retail and event spaces.  It made sense 50 years ago to plan and build new developments in this way however the reality of the way people live in the modern world is different.  In my experience mixed land use, where shops, houses and other amenities are closely integrated, allows for a much more connected community and legislation and planning permission that takes this into account are required at very early stages.  This is transport related because doing it correctly minimises the actual amount of moving that people have to do.  This decreases congestion and reduces air pollution as well as actually creating good communities.  It also improves inclusivity because those who can't afford, or don't want, a car can take advantage of all of the upside of the community. Shorter travel distances can also be better for people who require flexibility.

The severance of different areas must also be considered.  Grid systems can solve or introduce more severance issues depending on their planning.  MK has limited severance issues because active transport was considered from conception through to construction.

Active Transport Modes: Active transport, walking and cycling typically, has been well thought through in MK with a fully integrated system of walkways and tunnels that mean a pedestrian doesn't have to use a traffic crossing signal unless they choose to.  I'm no fan of the place but credit where credit is due.  We have a system of hire cycles that can accessed by anyone via an app and rental is reasonably priced.  Cycling is much easier in MK than in somewhere like London because it wasn't treated as an afterthought.

Public Transport Modes: Provision of public, or shared transport, can often be a make or break factor when it comes to urban planning.  Active transport modes are useful but not always appropriate.  They can't be as readily used in poor weather or by everyone.  It is important to ensure that public transport is well provisioned.  MK has a pretty terrible bus service and this forces people to use their own vehicles.  This means that not everyone can easily commute to the CBD.  External public mass transit modes also need to be considered.  How easy is it for people to come in or out of the area?  MK is exceptionally well connected to London which means that people there can work here and vice versa.  A knock-on effect is the significant increase in house price and land value.  Private and commercial transport along the M1, (one of the main arterial strategic roads in the UK) also means that it can be a good site for investment in logistics and freight, which brings jobs.

Future Mobility: Future mobility, new mobility services, mobility as a service etc are all buzz words in the industry at the moment.  This is probably the most important thing to think of when planning new urban areas.  The auto industry is currently making key decisions regarding vehicle ownership and transport models as well as power train technology.  Europe seems insistent on a shared mobility model of electric vehicles.  My personal opinion is that this is something of a pipe dream however a new urban space ought to be future proofed against these potentially disruptive innovations.  Can electric vehicles easily be charged at the new houses?  It's an absolute nightmare to charge EVs in the UK unless you have a drive or garage to park your car overnight.  Is there provision at the places of work to charge vehicles?  New mobility services usually consist of some sort of digital platform.  One issue with this is charging devices.  How is the charging provisioned at hubs and on transport?  My company ran a project to investigate the impact of this at train stations in the UK and there were some fascinating insights.  For example it's not immediately obvious but if you require smart ticketing for public services then you absolutely must be able to charge your phone at regular intervals throughout your journey.  People taking very short charges 'just in time'.

Small / Medium Enterprise Engagement:  Most of these new services are being provided by small companies (SMEs in the UK).  What is the community's plan to engage with them?  It is always worth considering creating enterprise hubs in new urban spaces.  They create jobs in both traditional and emerging markets, often trickle out new innovations locally first, and act as a catalyst for surrounding tertiary industry.  Is there a strategy for engaging with these stakeholders in a consistent and effective way?  I think correctly approaching this is very important because once you've built the space you need to grow it.

There's plenty of topics in this post, I'm happy to discuss any of them further as far as my expertise will allow.

I remember the press on it's inception, mainly the Shopping Building. At the time it stood tall in an empty landscape.

In the modernist Miesian tradition is the Shopping Building designed by Stuart Mosscrop and Christopher Woodward, a grade II listed building, which the Twentieth Century Society inter alia regards as the 'most distinguished' twentieth century retail building in Britain.[23][24]

The grid squares and grid roads (and redways) are different to a gridiron. More similar to John Muir's (the other John Muir) Velvet Monkey Wrench but on a smaller scale.

Before construction began, every area was subject to detailed archaeological investigation: doing so has exposed a rich history of human settlement since Neolithic times and has provided a unique insight into the history of a large sample of the landscape of north Buckinghamshire.

.... MKDC was determined to learn from the mistakes made in the earlier New Towns and revisit the Garden City ideals. They set in place the characteristic grid roads that run between districts ('grid squares'), as well as the intensive planting, lakes and parkland that are so evident today. While still on the drawing board, planners noticed that the main streets near the proposed city centre would almost frame the rising sun on Midsummer's Day. Greenwich Observatory was consulted to obtain the exact angle required at the latitude of Central Milton Keynes, and they managed to persuade the engineers to shift the grid of roads a few degrees in response.[15]

Colin Wilson would be proud.