Cities: Celebrating the Beautiful Chaos

11th October 2014

Anyone who flew into Hong Kong before 1998 will remember it well – that terrifying but thrilling sensation as your plane careered towards Kai Tak airport through Kowloon’s forest of skyscrapers. As it descended, the aircraft flew so close you could look through apartment windows to see what people were watching on TV. It seemed as through at any moment, the tip of a wing might slice through a corner of concrete.

So what planner in their right mind would build an airport in the middle of one of the world’s most densely populated neighborhoods with runways that, to accommodate air traffic, would eventually have to be extended into the harbour? No one. What actually happened was that the city simply crowded in around the airport.

Since Kai Tak closed, passengers have arrived at Chek Lap Kok airport on Lantau Island. It has vast terminals and runways accommodating armies of planes. Gone are Kai Tak’s infamous immigration lines. Gone are the infernal taxi queues. It’s efficient. It’s clean. It’s clearly what Hong Kong needs. But it’s not as much fun.

Cities are incredibly complex organisms. It’s why I love them and chose to live in some of the most intense of urban beasts (London, Hong Kong and now New York). I revel in their beautiful chaos. I live for moments when you glimpse an eighteenth century house crammed between two skyscrapers. I love a crowded pavement (when I lived in Hanoi, family dinners took place out on the street). A giant building site excites me. But so does a quiet garden in the middle of a London square.

Balancing the sometimes-conflicting needs of cities is a challenge. For cities, of course, the goal must be to create places that are dynamic, prosperous, safe, clean and green. But how do you do that while keeping everyone happy on crowded urban territory that has to be shared by residents, commuters, tourists, hospitals, schools, businesses and others?

Here’s another challenge. Cities are in a constant flux. They’ve always been that way. Writing about London in 1910, E.M. Forster, describes a city where bricks and mortar are “rising and falling with the restlessness of the water in a fountain, as the city receives more and more men upon her soil.” Sometimes that means (as it did for Kai Tak) the end for one much-loved piece of infrastructure and the rise of another.

Plenty of questions arise when thinking about how to plan and manage cities. How should law makers react when innovative businesses such as Airbnb, the accommodation website, turn the hospitality industry on its head? How do cities attract investment and high-quality talent while ensuring that low-income communities are not priced out of city life?

And it’s impossible to talk about cities without discussing technology. Hooked up to sensors, everything from lampposts to traffic lights can produce real-time data that helps decision makers track demand for services, anticipate trouble and shrink the city’s environmental footprint. Technology connects citizens, enabling them to form new communities and to work in completely different ways.

But in the city, technology can also disconnect. I think of my favourite West Village café, where, often, most of the clientele are sitting alone in front of a laptop. Then there’s the rising incidence of deaths and injuries among pedestrians, who are staring at their smartphones rather than watching where they’re going.

For me, one of the biggest questions for cities is how to preserve their glorious, unplanned diversity while allowing the city to grow; how to embrace most disruptive business models while keeping citizens safe; how to embrace the latest technologies while preserving the quirky old elements that distinguish a city.

Take New York. It’s great that electronic arrival message boards finally tell you how long you have to wait for the next subway train. It’s liberating to be able to take your laptop to a city park and go online. But did we really have to lose the Walk/Don’t Walk signs on street corners? They were idiosyncratic markers that told you this was unmistakably New York.

In unfamiliar cities, I love to explore. And during a short stay in Dallas earlier this year – the New Cities Summit, an event hosted by the Paris-based New Cities Foundation – I escaped from the positively icy temperatures of the conference venue and headed out to visit the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s a wonderful institution that has some exquisite paintings and sculptures in its galleries (don’t miss the remarkable Ancient American Art collection).

The museum is in the Dallas Arts District. With its neatly laid out plan, green spaces and stylish buildings, the district has been hailed as one of America’s best. As a piece of urban design, it’s certainly elegant. But as I wandered around its spacious streets and uncluttered sidewalks, I couldn’t help feeling something was missing – a bit more chaos.

A version of this post originally appeared on my LinkedIn Influencer page