If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the last 10 months of writing about land use issues on Kauai, it’s that planning is complicated. It doesn’t easily lend itself to sound bites or quick-fix solutions.

Which is why the recent Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials is such a hard event for the media to cover. With 20 sessions over three days— with titles like “Multi-sectoral Collaboration and Health” — it’s a policy wonk’s dream. Which makes it a journalist’s nightmare. There is no cohesive narrative to follow, no striking headlines and no blatant conflict.

And so nobody in Hawaii covered the actual conference.

The Tao of Planning was the title of the 2016 Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials conference on Kauai.

The “Tao of Planning” was the title of the 2016 Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials conference on Kauai.

Kauai County

Instead, Civil Beat created its own narrative, starting with Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoidrunken speech and then followed up by Tuesdays article that painted the event as an extended party for business people to cozy up to public officials.

But, that’s not at all what the conference was about.

Out of 344 attendees, at least two-thirds were planners, educators, citizen commissioners and government officials. Many of Hawaii’s major developers and land holders were in attendance, as well as a representatives of a diverse set of local community groups.

All of these stakeholders are integral to the planning process.

It’s this acknowledgement of the integral role that planning plays in our lives that drives businesses to sponsor the event.

Our government is structured so that land use decisions and policy occur largely from the bottom up. It’s like performing complex surgery, but instead of a doctor looking at a body, diagnosing the problem, and then operating, effective planning arises instead from the body itself. It is then molded by public officials, and then it goes back to the body for enforcement.

Community input is gathered through hundreds of hours of annual county outreach meetings. That input is turned into policy and land use decisions by our planning departments and refined through the political process. And then it comes back to the citizens for interpretation and enforcement through volunteer bodies like planning commission and the state Land Use Commission. 

This circular process is messy, complex and interwoven through every level of society — but it’s the most necessary aspect of a functioning democracy. Our built environment literally defines who we are.

“Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government,” wrote Jane Jacobs, the woman who defined urban planning for the 21st century. “And our successes are successes at localized self government.”

Which is why planning conferences such as HCPO are so important to the future of Hawaii. They allow for the dissemination of information to all stakeholders — from the county to the public to business. And they bring together the brightest in the field to share best practices, to discuss successes and to acknowledge failures.

Kauai County transportation planner Lee Steinmetz addresses participants in a traveling session, "Transportation Projects as Catalysts for Revitalization."

Kauai County transportation planner Lee Steinmetz, bottom, addresses participants in a traveling session, “Transportation Projects as Catalysts for Revitalization.”

Kauai County

The importance of this type of conference has long been recognized by the American Planning Association. In order to be a licensed planner, you need to receive 32 continuing education credits every two years. Events like this receive accreditation through the association so that local planners can earn credits toward maintaining their license.

When Kaiser Permanente said it was the chief sponsor of the event in order to promote healthy habits, some saw this as corporate spin to cover up a nefarious plot to influence state and county officials. But, it is just following the advice of the  U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which recommends that health organizations work side by side with planning organizations to “promote the development of communities where healthy choices are easy choices.”

According to the CDC, every dollar invested in bicycle or pedestrian transportation infrastructure saves $1.20 to $3.80 in health care costs.

Planning conferences such as HCPO are so important to the future of Hawaii. They allow for the dissemination of information to all stakeholders.

It’s the same reason that Kaiser health plans include free gym membership — because it’s a sound investment in the future.

While I am not a planner, investing in the future is something that I do acutely understand. As a business owner, part of my incentive in writing about land use issues is because I understand that my company’s success is based on sound planning. We require public investment in infrastructure, adequate industrially zoned land, and the preservation of ocean access — all of which arise through the planning process.

It’s this acknowledgement of the integral role that planning plays in our lives that drives businesses to sponsor the event.

As I began writing this column, I sent out emails to a handful of citizen attendees, asking them about their impression of the event, what they learned and why they went.

The answers were so specific, so wonky and so policy oriented that I realized I couldn’t weave them into a specific narrative. But their perspectives are still important.

Juno Ann Appalla, a full-time student and Kauai County Council candidate, sent me three pages of notes. She told me that she attended the conference “to learn more about potential solutions” to the problems that Kauai is facing.

At a session called “Place-Typing, Form Based Codes, and the Missing Middle” she learned that “form-based code” is a land development regulation that fosters predictable results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form, rather than separation of uses, as the organizing principle.

Caren Diamond, executive director of the nonprofit Malama Kua’aina, said that it was her fourth HCPO Conference and that she attended because it’s “a great opportunity to learn new information and build relationships.”

She highlighted “In the Shadow of Mauna Kea” as a particularly valuable session because it “provided a historic legal overview of protected rights and relevant Hawaii case law related to traditional and customary practices and how it impacts land ownership in Hawaii today.”

Tommy Noyes, executive director of the nonprofit Kauai Path, told me he learned that the “Hawaii Department of Transportation has adopted a much more contemporary attitude towards planning their roadway maintenance and repair programs in order to provide better facilities for all users.”

Maka’ala Ka’aumoana, executive director of the nonprofit Hanalei Watershed Hui, explained that she attended the conference in order to share her experience with community-driven planning efforts. And, because she often sees government-led initiatives as “short-lived sparks that fade fast,” she said that one of her motivations in attending was to better understand the jargon around smart growth, form-based code and complete streets so that she can get the community more involved in the planning process.

Motivated citizens and public officials can only do so much. The media has to help too. It’s our role to explain these complex topics.

Instead of creating our own narrative to define an event, we should be diving directly into each of these policy realms. Because the planning process doesn’t work unless we all get involved.

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