Placemaking in Milton Keynes: Oakgrove Village case study

Milton Keynes, the much-derided new town could be on the verge of a reputational makeover, as outsiders discover its more than 3,000 hectares of green space.

A SuDS scheme runs through Oakgrove Village. Image: HW
A SuDS scheme runs through Oakgrove Village. Image: HW

This year marks is the 50th birthday of the town, which boasts more than 22 million trees, convenient layout, and supply of new housing in a Buckinghamshire location 30 minutes by train from London.

In the middle of the Cambridge-to-Oxford growth corridor, Milton Keynes is the subject of a current place-making ideas competition run by Malcolm Reading for the National Infrastructure Commission, and so is a key part of plans to capitalise on the burgeoning ‘knowledge economy’ there. The corridor has four of the UK’s fastest-growing urban centres: Cambridge, Oxford, Northampton and Milton Keynes.

Milton Keynes is growing all the time and construction of the original vision is still not complete. Detractors say it is soulless and too focused on the car. Residents report almost non-existent public transport and describe the ‘Red Routes’ - separate walking and cycling routes which use a network of subways to avoid the roads – as meandering and sometimes unsafe. But the town, alongside other settlements such as Peterborough established along the same lines, does have two huge advantages over other towns – nobody lives more than half a mile from a park and most of them are cared for by its parks trust.

Celebrating 25 years in operation this year, The Parks Trust, Milton Keynes, a registered charity – looks after 2,500 hectares of green space in the town, mainly the large statement parks and the tree-rich green spaces alongside Milton Keynes’ grid road system. Milton Keynes Council maintains the rest. The park system was designed by landscape architect Peter Youngman and the landscaping of parks and of the grid roads evolved under the leadership of lead landscape architect Neil Higson.

The Parks Trust has identified 120 hectares of different types of space in development areas across the city, that it could potentially take over, including the 3,794 hectare Crest Nicholson development Oakgrove Village, which borders and link ups up with its Ouzel Valley Park and is due to change hands any time now.

The development of 2, 3, 4 and 5 bedroom houses and 1 and 2 bedroom apartments, alongside a school, offices, a Waitrose and other retail and catering outlets, was built on a flood plain and habitat for great crested newts. Therefore the developers had to include SuDS ponds to alleviate the flow rate of water to the Ouzel Valley and long grassy areas where the newts could thrive, alongside amenity and three children’s play areas, and develop a Landscape and Ecological Management Plan, all of which it is due to hand over into the care of the trust.

Head of landscape strategy and development Phil Bowsher has been working closely with Crest since the plans were drawn up. He says that working in partnership allows challenges to be addressed early on so they do not become a problem further down the line. For example, Crest Nicholson was so focused on environmental mitigation that it left little amenity space which could be used, for example, for children to play football on. Given Oakgrove borders Ouzel Valley Park that may not have seemed so much of a problem to planners.

But consultation with residents who have already moved in showed they wanted somewhere local for children to play ball games. Bowsher says the trust is considering clearing some of the long grass in the park to create an informal kickabout area as a result.

Trust chief executive David Foster says: "It’s been quite a challenging site for Crest to accommodate all the newts and the SuDS drainage and the green space for people and they are having to make some adjustments. They are a very good company and they are doing that."

The Parks Trust can share its experience of site-specific planting and maintenance – what grows best, what survives longest and so on - and can also add in a sense of the long-term costs of different choices.

"We work out how much we need to maintain the land and then our financial director works out how much we need to invest to achieve the amount. That is the amount the developer then pays as an endowment," says Bowsher.

Getting involved early on can also have benefits for the cost of maintenance, Foster says. For example does a design need to have two hard surface paths quite close together? One could be a grass path and this would involve a saving further down the line.

"We always try and work with the developer to get a good practical scheme that will work, that’s good for residents and good for wildlife but that isn’t overly costly for the developer to hand over," Foster says. "Sometimes the landscape architect designs a lovely scheme which will be too costly. They’ve got to think about how much it costs to maintain.

"Normally the land will be handed over to the local authority without a lot of thought about the lifetime cost. But we are working with the developer, and we are very conscious that we don’t want to dumb down the landscape.

Bowsher agrees. "It’s very much a three-way conversation with us, the designers and the developers," he says. "It avoids wasted design, you can be sure to get quality landscape that fits in with the rest of the park."

In terms of maintenance the trust also benefits from economies of scale. As far as possible Bowsher aims for consistency.

"We can ensure that cost-effectiveness fitting into our systems," he says. "We don’t want everything to look the same, we’re quite flexible. But for example we’d like to design the same kind of surface so it fits with the rest of the linear park and is the same surface to maintain. It’s about trying to be cost effective."

Bowsher also monitors progress as the landscaping goes in, for example checking planting against the masterplan in a stitch-in-time approach. If any mistakes are made, or it transpires a choice is not quite right, the trust is not left with a problem it needs to fix later. "You can always make minor adjustments," he says. 

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