Field notes: Milton Keynes: a green network in a garden city

I took the chance to get out on the bike and see some of the landscape features that make up Milton Keynes’ green network on a recent visit to campus.

Concepts like ‘green infrastructure’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ take up a lot of my time these days. However, all too often the nature of my work means they become just words on a page, either text in a manuscript that I’m writing for publication or statements in a policy document that I’m analysing. As a social scientist who is new to these concepts, and often more interested in what terminology and its underpinnings tell us about the kinds of knowledge and expertise that are valued in urban governance, it’s easy to forget there is a reality and a materiality to green spaces in cities. On a recent visit to my Open University campus at Milton Keynes, I therefore took the opportunity to hire a bike for a day and cycle round the city to see what Milton Keynes’ green network looks like ‘on the ground.’ 

Milton Keynes is an ideal city for learning about what a vibrant and extensive green network looks like in practice. It of course helps that Milton Keynes was founded in 1967 and planned and built under ‘Garden City’ ideals. If you ask most people in the UK what they think about Milton Keynes, their immediate answer will be ‘concrete, roundabouts and a grid system,’ probably followed by a slight sneer or scoff. Whilst it is true that roads (and cars and driving) are a prominent aspect of Milton Keynes, this is an unfair characterisation of the city as a whole. Linear parks, lakes and landscape features have been an equally important part of how the city was planned, and sit alongside and around the roads and buildings.

When Milton Keynes was established, the flood risk reduction and recreational benefits of green spaces took precedence. In 2018, the city launched the latest iteration of its green infrastructure strategy. Through this strategy, the city aims to consider its green spaces (and also ‘blue’ spaces of water) as a network that delivers a range of benefits to people. In real terms, what this means is managing existing elements such as parks, street trees and urban forests in a way that thinks about how they can bring multiple benefits across the city as a whole rather than thinking about them in isolation; and targeting new greening initiatives towards places and benefits that might be lacking at present.

In its latest strategy, the benefits that Milton Keynes Council hopes to achieve through its green infrastructure are support for biodiversity; productive ecosystems; flood risk reduction; climate resilience (reducing heat island effects and storing carbon dioxide); wellbeing, place-making and community cohesion; and investment, labour productivity and increasing visitor spending. The Natural Environment Partnership has gone a bit further, and started to map out how this green infrastructure might operate as natural capital across Milton Keynes. This in addition to the Buckinghamshire-wide green infrastructure vision the partnership has produced, which encompasses Milton Keynes.

My first stop was Campbell Park, an expansive green space to the east of the urban core. One notable point about Milton Keynes is that a sizeable portion of the city’s open space – some 6,000 acres – is owned not by the local authority but since 1992 by the Parks Trust, a self-financing charity that uses its endowment and a property portfolio to fund the management of the parks. As well as a lot of recreation and well-being space, Campbell Park has a fairly extensive rainfall retention and biodiversity protection function. On my cycle, I also came across a group of high school students with some park volunteers, taking samples from the ponds:

After riding round Campbell Park, I headed west to Linford Wood, an area of low mixed deciduous woodland designated as a ‘priority habitat’ in the city green infrastructure strategy. Linford Wood is a good example of how landscape features are built into Milton Keynes’ grid structure, as a grid ‘square’ has effectively been constructed round it. This is clearly a diverse habitat, and also a popular area with cyclists and joggers.

I then headed south towards the Open University Campus, riding along the valley of the River Ouzel. The area of the Ouzel Valley at the north end of the OU campus is a great example of a floodplain meadow, which brings both biodiversity and flood mitigation benefits to Milton Keynes as well as recreation – see if you can spot the angler hiding in the reeds! The OU has been a partner in a long-running programme on the conservation and restoration of floodplain meadows, and it certainly helps having one right on the doorstep of the campus.

The OU campus itself is included within Milton Keynes’ green infrastructure, and despite being a modern and planned campus has a lot going on. Here’s an area that’s been preserved and enhanced as a habitat for newts:

Reflecting our ethos of open labs and remote experimentation, the Open University is involved in a breadth of citizen science tree and biodiversity projects, such as Treezilla and iSpotNature. I was hence pleased to come across these trees, which are part of an experiment Ramla Khan is conducting for her doctoral research. The trees are part of an experimental approach, within a larger project, to see how they respond under rising urban temperatures:

As I outlined earlier, climate resilience in the form of heat island mitigation is another function of Milton Keynes’ green network that is taking on increasing prominence. On one of the days I was on campus, the temperature soared to 34 degrees. I don’t have the evidence to hand to understand the urban thermal environment, but the shading from the street trees in the city centre was certainly well appreciated:

So lots that I saw and learned from during my travels round Milton Keynes, and plenty of questions for follow-on research in the future. What does it mean for parks and green spaces to be leased out from a local authority and financed through property investments, and does it matter if the outcomes are beneficial to everyone? What about the priority areas for greening identified in the city strategies? Why have these been under-greened to date? What about stewardship of trees for cooling, and the urban climate of Milton Keynes? Lots to consider, and a great institution with a distinctive public mission to do it in.

Initial exploration into Milton Keynes’ green infrastructure is supported by Leslie Mabon’s involvement in the ESRC-MOST networking project ‘Urban greening for climate-resilient neighbourhoods‘ (ES/W000172/1)

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