Honolulu is becoming more urban, but an urban Honolulu sense of place is still an afterthought. There are small signs that this is changing and some stubborn signs that it is not.

A couple of Sunday afternoons ago I found myself stopping at a place in Kakaako that I have passed many times before but had never actually noticed, a mini-park alongside the road that runs between Auahi Street and Queen Street on the Diamond Head edge of Ward Village.

Still can’t picture the location? It’s just past TJ Max, next to the collection of quite fancy high-rises built a few years ago.

Park near the intersection of Queen Street and Waimanu Street. 29 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The mini-park between Auahi Street and Queen Street near Ward Village.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

My initial reaction — the one that first got me to stop and take a closer look and not try to get in and out of the area as fast as possible, which is my usual plan —was surprise. Look what we have here, a jewel in this area of cranes and commerce.

The park is a long narrow strip with a patch of green on one end and playground equipment on the other. Benches with small but pretty shade tress surround the playground.

On the afternoon I visited, there were parents with young children, multi-generational families including a grandfather taking photos of his grandchild going down the slide, and Frisbees.  And of course dogs — polite dogs, kid-friendly pooches.

The park offers an urban experience in a good way. It is a small but important sign that high-rise, high-end Kakaako might not end up as sterile and exclusive as many people fear.

The park is surprisingly lovely and offers a unique, Honolulu kind of urban vista. You can see the mountains and the ocean, but high-rises partially restrict those views. That’s not the Pali Lookout or the view of Molokai from the Blow Hole, but it’s not Brooklyn either.   

So that park is an important indication of how Honolulu is like other cities, and how it is different.

But something broader and deeper sustained my attention. The park intrigued me partly because it evoked some personal memories of the role that parks played when my children were young.

More important, the park is a reminder of how stilted, limited and scarce public gathering spaces, and not just parks, are in Honolulu.

There is a link between that surprising Kakaako park and the fact that it is almost impossible to have dinner, a cup of coffee, or a beer at a sidewalk café in Honolulu. When it comes to those amenities, Honolulu is an urban wasteland, this in a city with one of the most outdoors-friendly climates in the world.

One little park won’t change this, but that Kakaako park shows what urban Honolulu could become and how far the city is from getting there.

The year before we moved to Honolulu in 1972, my wife and 2-year-old son and I spent a year living in El Cerrito, California, in the hills just past Berkeley. When we arrived, we were total strangers and knew no one in the neighborhood.

A few blocks from our home there was a mini-park carved into the side of a small canyon. That park had an intimate feeling and became for us a place to make friends. We would wheel the stroller over there and then have an easy time making conversation with other parents.

It was not part of a larger park, just a small contained space. No ball fields, nothing but shade, benches and kids’ play stuff. It was a neighborhood park where you could meet your neighbors.

When we moved to Honolulu at the end of that year, we expected both the same sense of loneliness and the same chance to make friends. We were right about the loneliness, but not about the parks.

The closest public play area, Manoa Park, was a short drive but too long of a walk from our home in the rain forest near Paradise Park. 

We did not go to that park much because it did not have an intimate, mini-park feeling at all. Manoa Park was, and for the most part still is, a huge athletic field with a little bit of playground equipment stuck off to the side. It was not a place to walk over and meet people.

This little Kakaako park is an important indication of how Honolulu is like other cities, and how it is different.

In Honolulu most park playgrounds are a teeny-tiny part of a huge enterprise. Most are parts of schools or larger parks like Manoa. It’s primarily Little League, softball and youth soccer.

They have no neighborhood feel at all. Most people have to drive to get to them. Take a look at them. You’ll see how little walking over and talking story take place.

The small urban park a block from my 3-year-old granddaughter Vivienne’s Brooklyn home is truly a neighborhood park. Everyone walks to get there. Vivienne goes almost every day.

All year round that Brooklyn park is full of parents, children and nannies. There is a real sense of neighborhood ownership. When children outgrow their toys, parents often unofficially donate them to the playground for others to use.

In Honolulu the lack of an urban sense of place goes well beyond the parks. Other kinds of urban gathering spaces, like sidewalk cafes, hardly exist.

There are more outdoor bars and restaurants along a half-mile stretch of the Milwaukee River in downtown Milwaukee than there are in all of Oahu. 

Except for Waikiki, Honolulu’s waterfront is effectively walled off from eating and drinking. In fact, in almost all of the large stretch of urban Honolulu, from Kakaako Waterfront Park all the way to Ewa Beach, the waterfront is walled off, period. 

The problem goes beyond seaside seating. Sidewalk cafes, the kind where you can sit comfortably and people-watch? They barely exist here. Most of Waikiki is designed and maintained as if sidewalk gathering is a hindrance and a nuisance.

Coffee places, especially the elephant in the room, Starbucks, have on the surface changed this quite a bit. Most Starbucks have some outdoor seating, which is heavily used.

But this seating is generally made up of awkward, narrow spaces really close to parked cars. The spaces seem to be afterthoughts at best. The outdoor area at the Starbucks at a newish strip mall on Fort Weaver Road is so close to the parking lot that you can drink your latte with one hand and lean on the bumper of a Toyota RAV4 with the other.

But at least Starbucks offers the opportunity to gather outside. The rest of the island comes remarkably and sadly close to pitching a shutout. 

So that little Kakaako park is a start. Right now it’s easy to see the cranes, read the real estate ads, and imagine a really dense, really wealthy Kakaako. The park offers a chance to see something a little more encouraging that has emerged from this din.

The new park is an indication of how people can gain respite, friendship and a sense of community in a new, incredibly dense urban space.  Maybe, as the developers and HCDA claim, Kakaako will be filled with urban gathering places, outdoor restaurants, sidewalk cafes, beer gardens, and places to take your children to play.

But the burden should not fall entirely on Kakaako. Shopping malls, including neighborhood strip malls, need to be built or reconfigured to allow for gathering places to eat and drink.  Our “Second City,” Kapolei, has totally failed to do this. 

How about constructing a shopping area with an outdoor restaurant as the anchor rather than as the poor cousin?

Density needs to be seen as an opportunity for friendship. It’s good that we pay so much attention to preserving Honolulu’s natural beauty. It has been the basis of Hawaii’s sense of place.

But that’s no longer enough. City living needs the same amount of attention and emotional and political commitment. Maybe even more.

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