Going with the flow

As reported in the Guardian Online on 09 September 2004

Science can be used to design cities according to rational laws, writes Philip Ball.

‘It was built to be a modern, efficient, healthy and, all in all, pleasant place to live. Many Britons find this amusing.” That’s how Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, in their book Good Omens, describe Milton Keynes, a town for which neither heaven nor hell is prepared to take credit.

But even with one of the highest densities of roundabouts in the country, not to mention the notorious concrete cows, there are far worse places to live than Milton Keynes. The ridicule it suffers is more a reflection of our instinctive scepticism about the idea of rationally designing a city.

Ever since the 19th century, urban design has had an uneasy relationship with science. Amid the grimy horrors of the Industrial Revolution, cities became viewed as inherently undesirable.

“Town planning began as an attempt not to understand cities but to replace them with something better,” says Bill Hillier, director of the Space Syntax Laboratory at University College London. Idealists like Robert Owen aimed to create a bucolic-industrial utopia, and paved the way for “balanced urban environments” such as garden cities. Continue reading Going with the flow