Since the 1790s, when King Kamehameha I and Western explorers set sights on Oahu, Honolulu has grown from a cluster of huts on the island’s shoreline into a thriving port and finally the densely populated metropolitan hub of today, with the trappings of modern America layered over an aging infrastructure.
Although Honolulu operated for almost 80 years without a development plan, today strict regulations are imposed on planning, including environmental impact assessments.
Honolulu’s growth has been limited by the natural borders created by the Koolau Mountains to the east, the Waianae Mountain Range to the west and the Pacific Ocean. For decades, the vast agricultural tracts owned by sugar and pineapple growers also kept urban sprawl in check, holding most business and residential growth to a relatively narrow corridor from Pearl City to Hawaii Kai. The City and County of Honolulu includes all of Oahu and most of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Almost a third of the state’s population, however, lives in the city of Honolulu, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as the 84 square miles of land from Makapuu to Halawa Valley.
The closure of plantations has opened up more land in Central Oahu and Ewa. This has allowed urban planners to consider how to relieve the stress on the city’s infrastructure, including its congested roads, aging sewers and waste-management capacity. The city’s general plan through 2025 is now more than three decades old, but still guides planning decisions in designated communities. The plan calls for developing residential and business areas on former plantation land, with specifically defined borders to preserve agricultural land and natural resources. Residential development in Mililani and Ewa and growth of Kapolei as a second urban hub fall in line with plans to gradually shift growth away from the urban core and limit development in the suburban and rural areas of East and Windward Oahu, the North Shore and the Waianae Coast.
Some problems are too urgent for such long-term solutions. Among them:
Late in the 18th century, the settlement that would become Honolulu has been described by historians as a sparsely populated village, with huts clustered near the water. This would begin to change in the 1790s, when the first Western ship entered Honolulu Harbor, just a year or two before Kamehameha I and his army invaded the island’s southern shore.
Over the next few decades, Honolulu would develop into a port to accommodate the foreigners who sailed into the harbor to replenish supplies and trade cargo and merchandise. As Honolulu grew into the hub of commerce for the Hawaiian islands, it would also become the center of government. In 1804, Kamehameha I moved his court from the Big Island of Hawaii to have better control over Honolulu Harbor.
Development in Honolulu during the first half of the 1800s was driven by demand for bars and taverns from the sailors descending on Oahu’s shores, countered by the influence from Christian missionaries whose values would ultimately help guide the city’s growth.
In 1848, the Great Mahele redistributed land, allowing for the transfer or sale of a significant amount of land previously held by the Hawaiian Kingdom. Missionary descendants were able to acquire enough land to open the large sugar and pineapple plantations that dominated the state’s economy for decades. The effects of this land division remain a political lightning rod and some of the largest private landowners in the state are still connected to some of the Hawaiian and missionary elite, including Kamehameha Schools, Castle and Cooke and the Joseph Campbell Estate.
Waikiki, which had been used by Hawaiian royalty for beach front homes since the early 1800s, saw new growth around the 1880s when affluent businessmen began building their own water-front residences. The area, though still primarily marsh land, became more attractive for recreational use with the dedication of Queen Kapiolani Park at the base of Diamond Head. Commercial baths were opened and in 1888, the first inn would open as the Park Beach (later Sans Souci) and others would follow.
By the end of the 19th century, Honolulu architecture included wooden and stone structures, such as Kawaiahao Church and Aliiolani Hale, along with banks, theaters, private schools, museums, public transportation and a private railroad. The city had telephone service and electricity. It was also well on its way to becoming a military stronghold.
In 1907, almost a decade after the United States annexed Hawaii, Honolulu became the territory’s first incorporated city and began to take shape as the metropolitan area it is today. Waikiki, in particular, would see major changes. Until the 1920s, Waikiki was primarily marshland used by Hawaiian royalty and affluent businessmen to build beachfront homes. In the early 1900s, tourism had a toehold — particularly after the opening of the historic Moana and Royal Hawaiian hotels — but it wasn’t until the Ala Wai Canal was completed in the late 1920s that Waikiki started to take on its present form.
The Ala Wai Canal drained wetlands that had been deemed a health hazard and the reclaimed land was subdivided into 5,000 square foot lots, sold fee simple and developed. Attractions drew more visitors to the area, including the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial, an Olympic sized pool fed by the Pacific Ocean and the Honolulu Zoo. When World War II disrupted island life, Waikiki became a popular stop for soldiers and sailors.
The Modern Era
In 1959, the same year Hawaii became a state, commercial trans-pacific jet service led to a rapid rise in tourism, which replaced agriculture as the state’s primary economic driver.
On Oahu, as plantations closed, more people moved into the suburbs. Development of planned communities in Hawaii Kai and Mililani started in the 1960s, while communities like Kailua and Salt Lake saw a surge in new single family homes. The growth of bedroom communities led to demand for more roads and highways to link them to the urban core. The Pali and Likelike Highway — both with tunnels through the Koolau Mountains — made for easier access from urban Honolulu to the Windward side. In town, authorization to build federal interstate highways in 1960 led to the expansion of the one-mile Mauka Arterial Freeway into the Lunalilo/H-1 freeway.
Growth on Oahu was largely unfettered until the 1980s, when the city added a general plan to its charter. Subsequent sustainable community plans and design codes were adopted in an attempt to create more mixed-use districts where more people could live, work and shop without having to get on the highways. The plan, revised in 2002, calls for growth through 2025 to be concentrated in the urban core or channeled to designated areas, such as Mililani and Ewa. By setting growth boundaries, the general plan is intended to limit future development in existing suburban areas and preserve agricultural land and natural resources on the Windward, North Shore and Waianae Coast.
As the city and state promoted growth in Central Oahu and the Ewa plain, more government offices were moved to Kapolei to create a second urban hub closer to the new residential growth areas. Meanwhile, the city concentrated efforts on revitalizing Chinatown, which has become a vibrant arts district and desirable neighborhood for some interested in a more urban lifestyle. Similar efforts have been made to transform industrial Kakaako into a place to live, shop and play, particularly around the Ward and Ala Moana centers.
The city and state, along with the private sector, has also spent almost a decade revitalizing Waikiki, which by the 1990s had started showing its age and losing allure as a tourist destination.
The city currently has several planning documents that guide future development:
Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting
Map of large landowners on Oahu
Oahu General Plan
The City and County of Honolulu is responsible for many of Oahu residents’ infrastructure needs: roads, sewers, water and waste. Residents and businesses pay for most of these services through property taxes, but assorted fees and taxes are also used to provide specific services. For example, residents pay sewer fees to maintain the city wastewater system. The annual vehicle registration fee includes taxes to help pay for maintenance of city roads. The city also operates and maintains parks, municipal golf courses and performance spaces.
To learn more, go to the Honolulu Infrastructure page.
When it comes to planning and development on Oahu, key players include those who own the land, those who want to develop it, public agencies tasked with oversight and groups and organizations invested in what happens in their communities.
The Oahu General Plan, part of the Honolulu City Charter, contains guidelines for development on Oahu. A number of city and state officials, are tasked with ensuring development and infrastructure decisions are in line with the charter. A list can be found on the key players page.