Imagine the smell of our forests on a warm morning, the chill of trade winds, the song of birds. It was my good fortune to have such an office for years, though not a fortune in dollars.

NOTE: pick the correct link

During my time in biological science, I broke down whatever I was working on — a forest, an endangered animal, a plant — to find all the things that affected it. Other living things: counting the thousands of individuals in the population, or the rate at which predators ate the subject.

On the non-living side, we measured available energy and nutrients to determine rates of growth and reproduction — basically, the “economy” of the wild. Thinking scientifically is learned, not innate, and not easy.

I work in urban planning now. Urban planners use similar methods to analyze communities. Whether it’s a new building or a master plan for a neighborhood, planners first think about what defines a “space,” what interacts with it, and how it might change.

Most professional planners want nothing to do with visible politics. That is smart self-preservation, but bad for society.

One local auntie once asked me about my day job.

“I’m an urban planner by day,” I said.

She looked surprised, and teased me, “Planning in Hawaii? What a good idea!”

For good reason, planning often makes us passionate or angry. We haven’t so much had “bad planning” in Hawaii as often as we’ve had a “failure to plan,” per the old saying.

Pearl City H1 Freeway Honolulu City Aerial1.
Ugly or beautiful? The author argues that sometimes Hawaii has been the victim of poor planning. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I have known various elected officials here. Like any group of people, they bring different virtues and vices. But relatively few have any background in science, technology, engineering and math. That needs to be mitigated if they’re our only large-scale planners.

The best way to prevent group-think solutions is for us to empower other voices and skill sets, through law and policy. Bureaucrat planners are naturally reluctant to speak bluntly to elected officials. But there are ways we can “strengthen” planning. Hawaii was the first state to enact land use zones. We can lead and innovate again.

Looking around at these islands that we love, it’s clear that many of us feel dissatisfied with the often ugly and often misplaced infrastructure and buildings foisted on us.

A friend of mine, a housing and community advocate, challenged my belief that much of the architecture in Hawaii is ugly. He correctly pointed out that beauty is subjective. I agreed, but countered that most of us will agree that there is unique beauty found in the old homes of Manoa and Makiki, or the limestone creations from the territorial era in downtown Honolulu.

What Makes Good Buildings?

We’ve collectively known for centuries what people like — we go out of our way and plan to visit and preserve such places. We can stop the hand-wringing and throwing our hands up, as if we have no idea what makes good buildings.

Consider what you love about your community. Maybe it’s the street trees, or a stunning view, or something that makes it feel like a neighborhood of people you trust and like knowing.

Of course, it’s generally harder to build things here than on the mainland. I’m just talking about one factor to weigh against others like labor and materials. But form needs to start mattering a lot more again. We have to live with the decisions that others are making for us.

Because the extremes of development politics are usually the loudest people in the room— “no change, at all costs,” or, “build now regardless of the consequences” — we are left with an unworkable situation, because you cannot please either side 100 percent of the time. People have property rights. We also have a right to regulate the use and function of our communities, within reason and law.

A recent proposal to build super-structure housing projects has some intelligence, and some problems. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t build housing in other ways, or that we shouldn’t build housing in bulk. I support more affordable housing — and when possible, integrated into our neighborhoods.

Part of our problem here seems to be evaluating a community based on a single project.

At night, look upon the lack of lights from Kakaako’s new infill. It’s clear that those buildings are not 100% owner-occupied. That’s one aspect to why skyscrapers aren’t necessarily achieving results in the ways promised. Getting density right is a balancing act, one that is context-specific.

It’s not a blind tendency to cram people in like sardines or build as tall as possible. Part of our problem here seems to be evaluating a community based on a single project vs. planning a neighborhood for 10, 20 or 50 years out.

Honolulu zoning strongly prohibits or discourages most “middle housing” options, like row houses and duplexes, triplexes and quads. Architects on the mainland have shown that those can be integrated into existing, redeveloping residential areas without being visually out of place or as disruptive as a skyscraper next to a two-story walk-up. The latter now occurs everywhere in town, sadly.

Do not misunderstand me: We should have requirements. They just shouldn’t be one-size fits all. When other cities have learned from these mistakes the hard way, we would be wise to profit off their experience.

Proper, stronger planning prevents failed projects. Community planning enlists the people to democratically negotiate what they want to achieve, preserve and prevent. Maybe that is working our communities around how to shave a few minutes off the average daily travel for workers, or what will actually make people want to get out of the house and walk around, or what will increase home ownership.

The first directive in the Code of Ethics for American planners related to serving the public interest. Let’s preserve what makes our communities and this aina special enough to draw millions of people here from around the world.

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