Cities delight when they surprise: the virtuoso street musician, the tiny store of curios, the neighbour with a fascinating past - one of the joys of living in dense environments is how often the unexpected happens. Alas, too many modern cities - in the name of efficiency and overplanning - fail this test. Commuters are packed into cars, buses and trains to be conveyed from their housing complexes to their business complexes and then stop in at their shopping complexes on their way home. There is little romance there.
Inspired by Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, many urban planners and consultants now hope to bring back some of that vitality into urban communities. Supporters of Jacobs' ideas believe that the zoning of areas with specific and separate uses encourages the growth of large, standardised, single-purpose complexes so that people can only live in a residential complex, work in a business district and shop in a shopping mall. Both New York and London still have their specialised financial districts, but more often than not, both visitors and residents are more attracted to the areas that offer some surprises.
Here, on the other hand, our planners seem to be reading a different book. We are persevering with our 'big box' mentality with a policy of phasing out mixed-use zoning. Wan Chai continues to have significant street-level commercial activity, and in Causeway Bay, smaller, independent boutiques and enterprises continue to flourish despite neighbouring complexes such as Times Square or Sogo. But instead of viewing these as favourable characteristics of their mixed-use zoning, the government views them as planning hurdles and wishes to rezone them. No doubt, the intermixing of commercial activity with homes can create noise pollution and health and safety problems for residents. But these are not problems which need to be solved by a complete rezoning of the areas into separate uses.
We need to remind ourselves of what we look for in a city and its life; it would be a shame to have to destroy that in order to save it.