What a person is reading can be revealing.

On a visit to Gov. Neil Abercrombie Monday, the two books atop his desk were obscure titles by Lewis Mumford, a renowned American writer on cities and their importance, and Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect.

The book by Mumford is titled “Whither Honolulu,” written for the city’s parks board in the late 1930s. The book by Wright is titled “The Living City.”

Abercrombie’s passion for architecture and urban design became evident late last month when he announced plans for a mixed-use development in Kakaako that would make it a place where people would want to live and work, an environment designed for people.

In an interview with Civil Beat Monday, Abercrombie talked about how planning in Honolulu has been “hit and miss,” how he wants to build a “third city,” including an “urban oasis” in Kakaako, and how a new public land development corporation could help. The rebuilt city he imagines would extend from Diamond Head to Kalihi and be on a “human scale.”

Now this isn’t normally what you hear from a governor. But he explained why in the case of Hawaii and land use the governor has a unique role. In his view, simply put, it’s to “lead.”

That, he made clear, is something he intends to do on this front.

Before becoming a journalist, I worked as a builder. I loved cities and decided to study architecture, which I did at the University of Toronto for three years. For me, the allure of architecture was the possibility of creating spaces where people would flourish, to make people feel good about the world because of the beauty and integrity of the environment where they lived and worked.

When we visited him Monday, it was obvious right away that the governor was sensitive to the inspirational possibilities of architecture. There’s a huge rooftop outside his office, barren except for two big planters. When I joked about the way it looked, he brought up his dream of turning it into a rooftop garden, something beautiful for those in the downtown towers to look down on and a model for other developments in the city.

I took a detour from architecture when I was in college. I started a tiny “newspaper,” named “The Column.” This was in the days before the web or blogging.

I discovered then that I was happier writing than drawing, and thought I could contribute more by writing about the possibilities of architecture and urban planning than I could sitting at a drafting table. I read Mumford and visited every Wright building I could. Although my detour has become permanent, I still love to look at buildings and experience cities.

The governor is in a unique position to help shape the future of this city. No, he’s not going to make the detailed decisions of a planning commissioner.

But his obvious passion for developing what he called a “human scale urban oasis” is bound to elevate the community discussion and help give Honolulu a vision it can aspire to.

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