David Mountain, Planning and Environment, University of Manchester, 2017 Cohort
Thanks to the NWSSDTP Internship scheme, I spent my summer in Milton Keynes – the famed land of roundabouts and concrete cows. I had learnt that the grid layout in Central Milton Keynes, and its central street, Midsummer Boulevard, are orientated along the line of the sun on midsummer’s day, and this combination of modernism with ‘60s hippy spiritualism had sparked my curiosity. My presumption was that if any of the original architects of MK were still around, I’d find them on the night of the summer solstice somewhere along Midsummer Boulevard. Sadly this didn’t work out, but I had much more luck attending an evening nature walk in a rainy wood run by the MK Natural History Society: this was where I began to get to know some very welcoming and genuine characters who maintain what is between them a substantial oral history of the development of Milton Keynes, some of which is now getting written down.
My placement was with Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre (MKCDC), a curious charity set up in the 1970s by the MK Development Corporation as the MK Urban Studies Centre, within the now-obscure school of thought of ‘environmental education’. I had met its director and CEO at a conference on new towns heritage and she came to mind when I was toying up my options about a placement. The brief which we came up with together was for me to use their rich library and archive, accumulated over the years, to produce new learning resources on the history of the planning and realisation of Milton Keynes. The idea was that this would help with the educational component of their mission.
The first issue I confronted when I arrived was that the education officer no longer worked for the charity, and hadn’t been replaced. While this seemed to be a huge setback as I no longer had a line-manager, I also learnt that a project was just being set up called New Towns Heritage Explorers, which was working in a more sustained way on the kind of project I had in mind for my placement. This ongoing project is in partnership between MKCDC, Milton Keynes Council (MKC) and the Historic Towns and Villages Forum, and has Heritage Lottery funding and a set of part-time project staff. I met with the heritage officer at MKC and was invited to the initial project set-up meeting. Out of this, I agreed with one of the project directors to work on producing a set of documents to help guide volunteer researchers involved in the project on the kinds of research questions they could pursue on Milton Keynes history, and the kinds of historical materials which are available to them.
To do this I had to learn more about Milton Keynes myself, and I spent a lot of time in different libraries and archives, and interviewing a number of former planners and other officers from the time of Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Another funny finding was that in the 1970s and ‘80s, the MK Urban Studies Centre had already long ago produced some amazing learning resources which still exist in the MKCDC library, and which, although somewhat out-of-date, are much more substantial and thought-through than anything I could have produced in 3 months. The problem clearly was at the interface of schools and the charity – with a lack of time and perhaps money for visits, and a lack of engagement of teachers with the learning resources still available.
I also worked with a colleague at the University of Manchester on preparing a course that he is now teaching, and which I am the teaching assistant for, which includes a Milton Keynes component and a one-day field trip to Milton Keynes. Finally I put together a roundtable discussion featuring a number of planners and community advocates, past and present to discuss the history and future of concepts of planning and community in Milton Keynes. This was as part of a large public architecture/culture/design festival, commissioned by MKC, so I was able to get some of the advertising for the event quite easily. This was a great success and I’m proud to have facilitated the conversation which happened.
With less rigidly-structured placements at smaller organisations, I suspect that the kinds of challenges outlined above quite often occur, and that it’s important to keep lines of communication open, think on your feet and to say yes to the suggestions of people to meet with. In the end, I kept myself very busy, and got to meet some great people, but it could have been less enjoyable and productive if I’d not been so proactive. I also found the social side of life in MK a bit challenging – with no existing friends or friends of friends, and no academic contacts, my main social occasion of the week became the nature walks with retired planners and development officers; we did had a great deal to talk about as their expertise dated back many decades! I managed to partially compensate for this scarcity of company by making plans to meet friends and colleagues in London, which is not far at all, and encouraging plenty of friends and colleagues visit me.
The most valuable outcomes of the placement were getting to know some of the characters and some of the debates going on right now about the future of MK, getting a taste of work in a variety of non-academic fields through working alongside and interviewing practitioners (of heritage, education, planners and policymakers), and having the chance to get engrossed in and be a part of the daily life of a fascinating place.
Link to roundtable discussion
Image © Milton Keynes Development Corporation, Crown Copyright. Issued under the Open Government Licence v.3.0. Image courtesy of Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre.