“Jobs and housing.” Have you noticed? Developers always use the same argument: their project is always about “jobs and housing.” And who could oppose them?

We don’t. We simply ask: what sort of jobs and where is the housing?

Hawaii needs affordable places to live. And we need good, sustainable jobs. Too many construction workers are currently unemployed – partly because of an over reliance on a boom-and-bust construction market. On the other side of the coin, by one estimate Honolulu has the second highest number of homeless per capita in the United States. Our homeless problem shames us in so many ways: poor governance; bad schools, unhealthy economic and social disparities. And above all a shameful shortage of affordable housing.

So are more suburban mega-developments the answer?

The Sierra Club doesn’t think so. We opposed Koa Ridge because it would have splurged 5,000 homes over some of our best remaining farmland while making many of Oahu’s most glaring problems even worse: traffic congestion, pollution, over-dependence on ever-more expensive imported energy, mounting food insecurity. It would have sprawled yet more tons of concrete across the ‘aina, gobbling up our keiki’s birthright and undermining our largest industry – tourism. Above all: it would have done little for affordable housing.

For those same reasons the Sierra Club is getting ready to tackle D.R. Horton’s proposed Ho‘opili mega-development which would plant 11,750 housing units on some of the most productive farmland in the state – the place where an incredible 20% of our local produce is grown.

These developments just aren’t pono. They’re not smart.

Housing — and the many types of jobs it creates — should be the product of carefully laid plans to direct smart growth for the families of today and for our kids.

Pono growth does not pit preservation of prime farmland against urban development.

Pono growth should consider both Hawaii’s current and longterm food needs, and the security of future generations.

We have a practical, as well as a moral obligation, to resist the rush to exhaust precious limited resources in the pursuit of short-term gain. Over the last 50 years Oahu’s preferred planning model has been suburban sprawl. In that time, we paved 50 percent of our prime farmland: the land with the best soil, the best water access, the best capacity for growing food.

Tens of thousands of suburban single-family homes now cover much of central and leeward Oahu, all connected by a limited freeway system. Tens of thousands more homes are already zoned and entitled in new suburbs with names like Makaiwa Hills, Royal Kunia, Waiawa Ridge and Kapolei West.

As a result, at rush hour, H1 is now one of the most congested freeways in the nation. Commuters on O‘ahu lose an average 26 hours every year stuck in traffic, which means less time with our families and tons of CO2 every year, needlessly pumped into the air.

Rampant sprawl has made our lifestyle dangerously dependent on imports, sucking money out of state while hurting our economic and physical health.

Half a century ago, we grew more than 50 percent of our own food. Today we grow less than 15 percent. As fresh local produce was replaced by imported processed foods, we witnessed an explosion of diet-related diseases like diabetes and obesity, which in Hawai‘i now claims nearly one in four adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These diet-related diseases have, in turn, placed enormous strains on our healthcare system.

Meanwhile, the car-reliant suburban model makes us increasingly dependent on imported oil. Last year visitors to Hawai‘i spent $11.6 billion: this money flew straight back out the door to pay for imports – roughly $7 billion to import energy and perhaps as much as $3 to 4 billion for food and other imported goods. We hand this money to giant out-of-state energy corporations and agribusinesses that reinvest little in our economy.

So what is the answer for jobs and housing?

Hawaii is blessed with some of the most fertile land and benign growing weather on the planet. This gives us the chance to grow substantial quantities of our own food and bio-fuels. Growing more of our own food and energy would not only help protect us from disruption, inflation and scarcity; it would boost our economy and create jobs – both entry level and skilled. In 2008, the Department of Agriculture concluded that replacing just 10% of imported food with locally grown produce would generate nearly $200 million in sales and create more than 2,300 new jobs.

Oahu’s nascent agriculture revolution is bearing fruit. It takes time to recover from the death of the plantation monoculture, yet already the acreage devoted to growing vegetables increased 475% between 1990 and 2004. Led by top restaurants and hotels, the demand for locally grown and organic produce is exploding. We could be witnessing the revitalization of Hawaii’s agricultural sector, and a return to a more sustainable island system.

Meanwhile, by redirecting growth back to the city, we have a golden chance to steer currently unemployed construction workers into the burgeoning green jobs market. Here’s one example: federal statistics show that if we made 1% of the homes on Oahu more energy efficient, we’d create 800 to 900 new construction jobs. Already in the past five years, our solar industry has grown leaps and bounds, employing hundreds of new people while helping wean Hawaii off dirty fossil fuels. Taller city buildings demand more-skilled, better paid workers. These should be the future of Hawaii’s construction industry. That would be pono.

But for that scenario to have any hope of coming to pass we cannot permit any more huge tracts of prime farmland to be swallowed by suburbs.

Large new housing projects should be directed back to the traditional urban core. Oahu could see a mix of mid-rise 4 to 6 story buildings and taller apartment towers in areas like Kaka‘ako, Iwilei, Mo‘ili‘ili, McCully, Kalihi, Pearl City, Ewa and Kapolei. Done right, this type of growth brings vitality to older neighborhoods, improves health and safety and strengthens diversity by promoting social interaction and cultural ties.

This type of growth would not only create sustainable new jobs and make our lifestyle more sustainable – it would be a more efficient use of resources with a smaller environmental impact,than any of the currently proposed suburban mega-projects.

Done right, urban redevelopment will save our farmland, create good jobs and give us a chance to build a secure, sustainable economic model.

That’s the the pono way. We just need the smarts, the courage and a willingness to work together to make it happen.


About the author: Robert Harris is a lawyer and director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii Chapter.