Mention Milton Keynes to a British person and they probably will groan or make a joke about roundabouts or plastic cows.
One of the so called ‘New Towns’ built in the 1960s, it is normally perceived by outsiders as sprawling and characterless.
But mention Milton Keynes to Wei Yang, a Beijing born town-planner, and you will get a wholly different response.
“Milton Keynes is very famous. It appears in many textbooks as one of the most successful examples of a planned town,” Wei says with undeniable passion.
So perhaps it is no surprise that Wei decided to use the Buckinghamshire conurbation as her inspiration for two new towns she was commissioned to design in China’s Hunan province.
The towns of Huarong and Lixian will be based around existing settlements and will each house about a quarter of million people, much like Milton Keynes.
China sees large-scale urbanisation as a solution to emerging agricultural and economic problems and is drafting a raft of policies that will encourage rural dwellers to move off the land into small and medium-sized towns and cities – many of which are in the process of being built.
A report by China’s Population and Development Research Centre last year predicted some 300 million people will move out of the countryside into urban environments over the next 20 years.
“Britain’s New Towns and garden cities are very relevant to China right now,” says Wei.
“The next 30 years are very important for urban planning in China, we have to learn from best practice. If China gets it wrong it could be a disaster,” she adds.
Milton Keynes, commissioned in 1967, was one of the last of the New Towns that were built in the wake of the Second World War to ease housing shortages in major cities like London and Manchester.
“Milton Keynes has been designed in such a way that it combined existing parkland, farmland, waterways as well as leisure and job opportunities, accessibility and sense of community. This is what we want to recreate,” says Wei.
Unlike other Chinese projects, Wei insists her two projects are not physical copies of Milton Keynes – hence Lixian and Huarong won’t be dotted with Milton Keyne’s famous plastic cow sculptures.
Not that China hasn’t proven adept when it comes to copying other places. Last year the southern province of Guangdong unveiled a brick-by-brick replica of Hallstatt, a centuries-old lakeside village in Austria. And the northern port city of Tianjin is currently working on a project that will reproduce Manhattan’s iconic skyline.
Why the need to copy? Part of the problem, said an editorial in the People’s Daily, is that China lacks cultural confidence.
But one English town that probably isn’t in danger of getting the Chinese ‘replica’ treatment is Slough.
Or at least it won’t be, if China’s architects read John Betjeman’s infamous poem about the place, which begins: “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough/ It isn’t fit for humans now.”
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