As we have been reminded so tragically in recent times, over-development and over-crowding are severe problems in Hong Kong. This is not just in older areas but in newer ones, too - like Tseung Kwan O. The government's town planners should not be blamed for the yo-yo effect on the new town's development, trying to increase the population density in 1997 only to trim it back six years later. They were responding, after all, to a political directive to find space to build 85,000 homes a year so Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa could accomplish his vision of raising the home ownership rate from 50 to 70 per cent by 2007. Instead of housing a total of 445,000 people by 2011, the new town's planning standards were relaxed to allow it to accommodate 520,000 people, mainly by reducing open space and permitting taller blocks. The result has been unpleasant; residents and visitors to the new town now cannot help feeling squeezed by the closely packed buildings. Mr Tung made the wrong call, and will be remembered for pursuing a policy that 'over corrected' the property market bubble. There are lessons to be learned from the Tseung Kwan O experience and the main one is that something as basic as the minimum amount of open space needed for a dense and increasing population should not be easily compromised. As residents of a compact city with a burgeoning population destined to rise from the present 6.8 million to just short of 9 million over the next three decades, Hong Kong people are unlikely to live in the kind of spacious apartments that are considered basic in most countries. Relative to other affluent places, our homes are shoeboxes that cost a fortune, but deteriorate fast because of poor maintenance. But wealth alone will not sustain Hong Kong as an international financial, trading and tourism hub. Its quality of life must be lifted so people will find this a pleasant place to pursue a career and raise a family. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou lag behind Hong Kong in many respects, but they beat us in the provision of quality accommodation. The rush to build more homes in the late 1990s was founded on several assumptions: that home prices would continue to soar; that most Hong Kong people would continue to see this city as home; and that immigration from the mainland and elsewhere would continue. The first assumption has been proved wrong; it is also time the other two were reviewed. With hindsight, the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the mainland's drive to develop its economy have fundamentally changed this city's relationship with the rest of the nation. Increasingly, Hong Kong people find that their work takes them to the mainland, as travellers or long-term residents. Rather than taking on a big debt by buying an expensive small flat here, many have acquired a bigger second home across the border at a fraction of what it would cost here. It is conceivable that as living standards in the mainland rise, the flow of immigrants will also ease. The Planning Department has conducted studies on these areas and their findings should inform future plans. The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, particularly at the mass residential estate of Amoy Gardens, has driven home the importance of maintaining a clean living environment. A better living environment needs better buildings. The recent initiative by the architecture department of the University of Hong Kong in setting higher design standards is a commendable effort in the right direction. Despite plans to thin out population density, Hong Kong will remain one of the most densely populated cities in the world and one whose people are almost exclusively housed in high-rises. But we have yet to set an example in living a quality life in high-rises - and we should.