About the Author

Dylan Armstrong

Dylan Armstrong is an urban planner and conservationist. He served as the chair of Manoa Neighborhood Board from 2019-2022.

More green spaces help reduce loneliness and promote safety, build community and helps us gather together.

One of my longest lasting political influences has to be Star Trek. I can thank a hokey, space-action television show for instilling two practical, deep-seated beliefs: Spock’s “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and the Starfleet directive to utilize sincere cooperation in negotiating.

The latter requires striving to understand those from totally different cultures, seeking “win-win” outcomes as opposed to “winner-takes-all” or double-crossing. Such idealism straight out of the loftier 1960s-1990s may not always succeed. But the attempting alone is worthwhile. It makes us better people.

Sadly, cursory research suggests a decline in these beliefs; Star Trek feels perhaps quaintly utopian, and liberal democracy has waned for years. In a particularly self-destructive trend, public trust in institutions fell to both a national and global all-time low, for the past decade, now accompanied by weaker trust in our fellow citizens.

As a former neighborhood board chair of four years (a seven-year member), I worked hard to build up an institution that I find to be mainly reliant on “sweat equity” over much in the way of funding. It also immersed me in what makes Honolulu residents tick. In meeting, reading by email, and by other means, they let the boards know.

One of these most common discussion topics is park conditions. Most frequently there are issues affecting walking and dog exercise. Another major topic is the safety of public right-of-way relating to walking and bicycling hazards. In fact, there are still quiet streets in Honolulu’s Primary Urban Center where most residents do know their neighbors, and maybe even greet each other during post-dinner strolls, or dog walks.

Walking promotes health and longevity. In Sardinia, where men live to be 100 at the highest rate in the world, highland shepherds traditionally spent all day walking over the mountainscapes, even spending months at a time camping away from family. Uncannily enough, while I was serving as the Built Environment Committee Co-Chair of the Manoa-McCully-Moiliili-Makiki Blue Zones Project, I found out that I was descended from a Sardinian immigrant.

Visitors and locals alike enjoy Fort Ruger Pathway. Honolulu needs more such pathways. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Walking has other benefits. In the case of well-connected neighbors, it reduces loneliness and promotes safety, which is why the Manoa Neighborhood Security Watch and similar efforts in other neighborhoods have drawn support from the Honolulu Police Department. It is far easier to keep a community safe when the residents notice something amiss.

One thing I’ve never heard of people having an issue with is walking. There are quieter streets in the middle of Honolulu’s Primary Urban Center where our retiree-heavy population (kupuna) stroll especially after dinner, and as needed if they walk any dogs. But following Kevin Costner’s “if you build it” maxim, some streets get better pedestrian and cyclist use than others: particularly well sidewalked, have clear right-of-way including bike paths, are less quiet, and have slower traffic speeds.

Honolulu is relatively poor in park space. One of the visible signs is crowding for larger, more diverse parks like the district parks that feature sports facilities, pools, and playgrounds.
What we haven’t seen is a lot of new park space. We’ve seen more houses, bigger houses, new rail transit, a little bit of new bikeway, but not many new parks.

‘A Rare Exception’

The Fort Ruger Pathway on the mauka flank of Diamond Head is a rare exception. Residents and tourists alike flock to it, from the Monserrat side terminus to the stupendously beautiful native Peace Garden near Kapiolani Community College. While there are bike/ped facilities and even some outdoor exercise equipment, this public space is minimal and narrow. There are no great fields, no tennis courts, no swimming pools. Hang on to that thought.

By comparison, for the past two decades, the city of Portland, Oregon, as well as its large suburbs have systematically acquired a lot of parks, whether you’re counting acreage, distribution across neighborhoods, or park types. In 2017, I met the then-director of Portland’s Parks Department at the American Congress of Planners in New York City. Portland has developed more nature parks dedicated to wild native landscapes, sports recreational complexes, dog spaced, community gardens, you name it.

These and many other jurisdictions have done a lot, using Geographic Information Systems to locate strategic places for new parkspace. Often, these acquisitions receive funding through levied bonds. Some such bonds were even approved directly by the voters.

For Honolulu, this is all a trickier endeavor. Higher land costs, greater likelihood for pushback from residents, and a smaller, denser landscape are some immediate reasons for failure. Yet I don’t think this is a matter of trying to equal another city. However, if we can improve residents’ quality of life, let’s talk about how.

I think if you want to promote pro-social and healthy behavior that lets the public do what it actually wants to do, parks that focus on healthy movement (walking and biking) seem like an outstanding opportunity. Maybe the cheapest and most feasible way to get more parks in any given community is to find places where greenways and pathways can complement existing mixed-use parks.

For Diamond Head’s Fort Ruger, it was on the flank of a slope. Most valleys and coastal neighborhoods would look to a greenway near water. And perhaps greenways require some piecemeal acquisition and development at first. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But its pathways have survived thousands of years.

A well-landscaped greenway can promote ecosystem balance in a way the typical lawn-based park with a few trees can’t. A native plant corridor can offer the openness necessary to promote feelings of safety and clear visibility, with the added benefit of promoting bird and insect diversity. Unlike most Honolulu parks, greenways lack the seating and breadth associated with after-hours gatherings (whether gambling or otherwise undesirable). However, proper design is a complex issue.

Greenways can also limit flood damage along waterways, as these do in the city of Beaverton, Oregon, where larger spaces were restored as ponds and wetlands, with wildlife viewing platforms and interpretive signage. Yet most of Beaverton’s Greenway Park and its network of open spaces are just dedicated to healthy movement: walking and cycling, including leashed dogs, on spaces sometimes no more than a few feet wide. A “win-win” greenway can be flexibly designed with attention to the community’s needs and the actual space available.

Every community in Honolulu deserves more space to walk and bike, and even to gather. My goal is admittedly lofty, so it has no timetable. But we know that other municipalities have successfully forged ahead on visibly improving residents’ quality of life, rather than feeling defeated by the weight of past efforts and lost causes.

Honolulu is relatively poor in park space.

Residents can reflect that Honolulu’s Outdoor Circle, Hawaii’s Sierra Club, the Blue Zones Project, the Hawaii Bicycling League, and even the City and County of Honolulu, and yes, even including our flawed but special Neighborhood Boards, have occasionally won some citizen victories. Such victories can make the lives of the little people a little better.

There is a wonderful humility that many island people have. At times, government can mistake such modesty for carte blanche to pursue its own interests. I want 80-year-olds to feel safe walking on our streets and in our parks at dusk. I want parents to have places they can take their children for exercise, especially when many Honolulu kids have no private yards or live on busy streets. I want people to better enjoy the beauty we take for granted, with varied routes and perspectives with which to appreciate it.

Technology can help identify cost savings and design opportunities for these admittedly complex and costlier goals. But I think the biggest challenge is our level of expectation for government service, and our commitment to future generations. What could be more future-oriented than planting a delicate and vulnerable sapling, and trying to make more parks?

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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About the Author

Dylan Armstrong

Dylan Armstrong is an urban planner and conservationist. He served as the chair of Manoa Neighborhood Board from 2019-2022.

Latest Comments (0)

Thank you for your article. I agree that walking is beneficial in so many ways; mentally; physically; socially. Hawaii could be a more walkable place if there were sidewalks in neighborhoods; and side walks connecting communities; ideally wide side walks for mobility access

Swimmerjean · 7 months ago

Thank you Dylan. Yes, for sure we need more places to be outside but sadly we'd rather cover it in concrete and build more homes. With the temperatures getting hotter and more unpredictable weather, we need more open spaces to keep the atmosphere cooler and absorb rain water. Walking paths with natural shade are essential to not just our health but the health of our island.

kailua_kamaaina · 7 months ago

Isn't this another way of over tourism? The aina need to heal from man kind stuff.

kealoha1938 · 7 months ago

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