The Historical Journal

Research Article

PLANNING THE URBAN FUTURE IN 1960s BRITAIN*

GUY ORTOLANOa1 c1

a1 New York University

ABSTRACT

This article recovers Buckinghamshire county council's proposal to build a monorail city for 250,000 residents during the 1960s. The project was eventually taken over by Whitehall, which proceeded to establish Britain's largest new town of Milton Keynes instead, but from 1962 to 1968 local officials pursued their monorail metropolis. By telling the story of ‘North Bucks New City’, the article develops a series of claims. First, the proposal should be understood not as the eccentric creation of a single British county, but rather as one iteration of larger state efforts to manage the densities and distributions of growing populations. Second, while the 1960s witnessed the automobile's decisive triumph as a means of personal mobility in Britain, that very triumph ironically generated critiques of the car and quests for alternatives. Third, the monorail was part of a complex social vision that anticipated – and, in part through the facilitation of recreational shopping, sought to alleviate – a crisis of delinquency expected to result from a world of automation and affluence. Fourth, despite its ‘futuristic’ monorail, the plan ultimately represented an effort by experts and the state to manage social change along congenial lines. Fifth, the proposal advanced a nationalist urbanism, promising renewed global stature for post-imperial Britain by building upon its long urban history. Finally, the article concludes by arguing that this unrealized vision points to the limitations of ‘modernism’ in the history of urban planning, and to the problems of teleology in the history of the 1960s.

(Online publication May 11 2011)

Correspondence:

c1 Department of History, New York University, 53 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, USA ortolano@nyu.edu

* I am grateful to Clare Jackson and the anonymous reviewers for the Historical Journal for their comments and suggestions. This article has also benefited from the responses of James Cronin and the British Study Group at Harvard, Peter Mandler and the Modern Cultural History Seminar at Cambridge, and Richard Williams and the North American Conference on British Studies in Baltimore. Special thanks to those who commented upon written drafts: Ken Alder, Herrick Chapman, Greg Downs, Simon Gunn, Jenny C. Mann, and Kirk Willis, as well as to my interlocutors on monorails and futurism, Michelle Standley and Larry Wolff. I would also like to thank the staff of the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury, especially Roger Bettridge, Chris Low, and Sally Mason. All quotations from papers produced by county officers are reproduced by permission of the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.