Milton Keynes: Shangdi or Shenzhen of the UK?

23:50 (UTC±00:00), 21 NOV 2015 | GBR HARROW, GREATER LONDON

MK 01

I’ve been in just around 250 cities in 24 countries and territories, so I am seeing more and more cities that look the same. And Milton Keynes, or MK for short, sure counts as one of the weirder cities I’ve been to.

For a start, it’s in essence Shangdi (in Beijing; just by Zhongguancun), but rotated about 40° or so; otherwise it’s not unlike newer parts of Zhongguancun and northern / northwestern Beijing (especially around the Xi’erqi area). There are huge avenues (not unlike China), but that’s it; otherwise, it’s all square / rectangular office buildings.

The journey to get there was already one where unexpected things happened more than once. My Southern connection to MK got delayed, leaving me panting for breath as I stormed into Harrow & Wealdstone station — only to find the train late. I next sat in Standard Class by the wheelchair accessible toilets, where I noticed for the first time that locals (Brits) had a huge amount of trouble trying to operate the thing. They kept pushing the wrong buttons at the wrong time!

So if the train was user-unfriendly, much the same could be said of Milton Keynes Central station itself. When I went to pick up my tickets leaving MK, I waited for about 15-20 minutes in a line that reminded me to the one-hour long wait at Harbin Railway Station. This was very poor design, with a huge queue blocking the main access path, and to wait for this long was also getting to me. Finally, I got my ticket — with an onward connection to Reading, I picked up my first ticket with a † sign, meaning the ticket was valid for one journey on the Tube for the London transfer!

The station itself had the usual, very Chinese, massive “station front plaza” (as they’d say in the PRC). It was also futuristically drab.

MK 02 Station

I came here to research how much MK was into building a “smart” city for my upcoming talk at the British Academy. It could’ve been that this was my first visit, but software-wise, I found nothing futuristically “smart” about it. The hardware, though, was pretty smart; you had underpasses (which I just fit into, given I was 1.91 m / 6′ 3″!) that meant you did not deal with pedestrian crossings. There was a set of four per major crossing, so you got from A to B faster. I later learnt the above-ground dual carriageways went up to 70 mph (110 km/h!) in an urban area, so to put a regular pedestrian crossing was basically out of the question.

MK 03 Underpass

Now as much as I’ve a slight bit of bones to pick with MK, I can’t really do that so well when it’s actually pretty well designed. You had a lot of car parks, each priced differently, with cheaper, standard rate spaces, plus more expensive, premium rate bays. This was this capitalist bit about “paying for time” at work — at its best — and I thought it was a great idea. You also had a fair bit of parking right by the main avenue and next to the buildings. Talk about efficiency: this Swiss is impressed here!

MK 04 Parking

Modern-ish buildings were everywhere, though, not unlike Zhongguancun, Shangdi, or Xi’erqi, although when compare with their Beijing equivalents, the MK ones were much less tall than those in the Jing.

MK 05 Modern Buildings

One thing that showed me MK was still smart — even it was just the hardware — was this crucial, manic even, dedication to detail. Of course this was Great Britain, where the rain supposedly came At Her Majesty’s Pleasure (not really, but you get the idea). As a result, you had to have cover, right? Boom. They got rain shelters right next to car drop-off points. I call that genius. This is the stuff that I expected from The Steve or Jony Ive. (But they’re both not from MK: one’s working right now on iHeaven, the other hails from Chingford.)

MK 06 Details

The main shopping centre in town at first looked, to my eyes, like a huge transport hub not unlike a Chinese HSR station — or a glitzy government building in the Hu Jintao era. But no, this was where MK people went to in order to get stuff. And into intu MK it was, where I picked up on some quality lunch that, in one fell swoop (one meal!), got me all of my 5 a day.

MK 07 Shopping Centre

As a Swiss, though, I have to say, our cows aren’t made out of concrete! That was quite a de-appetising discovery found right after lunch.

MK 08 Cows

You can’t escape those towers, though, not if you’re in MK. Some of these appeared to be more Shenzhenesque than (traditional) “British”.

MK 09 Modern Buildings

Others reminded me to back streets in the suburbs of Beijing.

MK 10 Suburban Streets

I think I summed it up pretty well on Facebook:

Britain-ise Zhongguancun and Shangdi, turn the thing 40 degrees around, wave a magic wand, and kaboom: you get Milton Keynes. I want out.

And out I went on a Virgin train at around 14:00, headed south.

Will I return to MK? No idea. Do I hate the place? Nope. Will I want to live here? Also a resounding no.

It’s just — not what I came to the UK for. OK, granted, every Big Kahuna country has those weird new towns (I’m not holding my hopes too high for Canberra, then; ditto, Brasilia). But to me, MK, whilst not the worst city in the world (and in fact, details-wise, it’s looking pretty good), just makes me shake my head. I mean, I can easily catch a train for a return journey (why not?). But I’ll need a pretty good reason — other than to continue exploring or just to get the gist of Beijing again.

(Which I’ll be returning to shortly, too.)