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Society, Politics & Law

This is not a city: Milton Keynes

Updated Tuesday 4th July 2017

What makes a city and why does it matter? 

A visitor to Milton Keynes may be inclined to consider the 1960s ‘new town’, with its wide boulevards and modernist architecture, as one of the 69 cities in the UK.  It has many of the familiar features and institutions of a city: a large centre and surrounding built area, national and international headquarters for businesses and public sector organisations, a thriving local economy, a large shopping centre and a university.  Several local organisations refer to Milton Keynes as a ‘city’: Milton Keynes City Football Club and Milton Keynes City Orchestra to name just two. Even the local authority, MK Council, does it.  But, as you may have guessed by now, Milton Keynes is not a city.

In fact, despite making several bids for ‘city status’ in the 2000, 2002 and 2012 Civic Honours competitions, Milton Keynes is officially still a large town. Why does this matter? Receiving city status alone does not bring any benefits, extra sources of funding, or new powers for the local authority; it simply confers the right for a local authority to refer to itself as a ‘city’. However, as a visit to the MK Council’s MK50 website will reveal, this is already the case. After all, as the researcher John Beckett suggests, there is little the government can do to stop any local authority calling itself a city. Yet 42 towns applied in the 2002 competition, and another 25 towns applied in 2012.

Why does a competition for the status of city, awarded just 23 times since 1905, attract so many applicants? For many, city status seems to be a marker of identity and national significance in terms of economy, culture, scientific knowledge and social advancement. Cities market themselves and are recognised as centres of commerce, heritage, creativity and other specialisms. Think of Edinburgh and cultural events such as the Fringe, or think of London and its stock markets. Being a city is to be elevated to a greater level of national significance.

Throughout much of history, the city has been considered a space where the citizens were free from the back-breaking labour that defined rural life. According to geographer Yi Fu Tuan, the stability and relative comfort of urban life enabled citizens to turn their attentions to the big questions of philosophy, ethics and politics, or to develop and exchange scientific knowledge. Cities have been at the heart of nations and empires, where political power is materialised in physical form. The later industrial period saw cities become key nodes in globalised systems of economic production, the distribution of goods, and sites of the exploitation of workers, whose labour produces that wealth.  Walking around many of the UK’s cities today can remind one of the wealth generated during the industrial age, with elegant Victorian buildings, statues and squares, although the labourers of this period are often absent from this representation. 

Creative commons image Icon By Own work (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license As the industrial period has given way to so-called ‘knowledge-based’ economies in the 21st century, where ideas and skills are emphasised over physical goods, investment in digital technologies, applications and physical infrastructure has brought together knowledge and economic productivity.  Capitalising on this trend, Milton Keynes has branded itself as a ‘smart city’.  Across the globe, smart cities such as Songdo in South Korea and Barcelona in Spain are increasingly using networks of sensors, databases and IT systems to find efficient, sustainable and holistic solutions to urban challenges.  Amongst its own efforts to become a smart city, Milton Keynes has invested in a datahub, become a testbed for driverless cars as well as engage with the community through projects such as Community Action: MK.

So if MK is not a city, just what turns a town into one? The Department of Culture, Media and Sport were deliberately vague when defining the criteria for city status for the 2012 competition, but there are a few common assumptions.

It has often been thought that the presence of an Anglican cathedral signifies city status. However there are some notable exceptions. Southampton and Leeds are cities without cathedrals, whilst towns with cathedrals include Blackburn and Guildford. 

Perhaps a city should have a large population? Milton Keynes’ rivals in the 2012 competition all had smaller populations compared to the 248,821 residents who called MK home in the 2011 England and Wales census. One of the winners, St. Asaph, has only 3,355 residents, so population size is clearly not a deciding factor.

Cities are often considered to be a mix of different people, cultures, religions and functions. A stroll through the Open Market in the centre of Milton Keynes will reveal a busy hub of food, clothes and other products from the Middle East, Asia and beyond. The 2011 Census recorded 18.5% of residents were born outside of the UK and a fifth of the population were from a non-white ethnicity. So a variety of people and cultures are present within MK. 

Where MK really does depart from the look of many other cities is with its modernist street plan. Incorporating one kilometre grid squares, the city, or town, has a low density and segmented layout, incorporating principles of Ebenezer Howard’s ‘garden city’ movement. The town therefore resists popular images of cities conjured by commentators such as Jane Jacobs, with landscapes comprising skyscrapers, residential blocks, untidy shops, businesses, pedestrians and street hawkers competing for the same space and trade. Does the tidiness and ordered presentation of the centre prevent MK from looking like a city?

Cities, as we have seen, are difficult things to define. In fact, there is no objective or measurable indicator of a city. The ultimate quality that determines city status is perhaps based more on perception rather than qualification. Indeed, Beckett draws attention to the secrecy surrounding the decision-making procedures in the 2012 competition and questions whether it should be the local people’s right to define what is and isn’t a city, rather than a distant government.  Residents and organisations based in Milton Keynes often express confidence in their de facto city status – maybe one day a future competition will make this happen.

Further reading and about the author

Beckett, J., (2014), ‘Inventing and reinventing the modern city: the 2012 city status competition in the United Kingdom’, Urban History, vol. 41, no.4, pp.705-720

Tuan, Y., (1974), Topophilia, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall Inc.

Dr Edward Wigley is a postdoctoral researcher on the ESRC-funded research project “Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes” (ES/N014421/1). To learn more about the project, visit www.scim-mk.org.

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