The pilot project near Maili Elementary School could be a model for more efforts to cool Oahu’s hot spots.

Oahu’s dry and sunny Leeward side is about to get a little shadier, and the city hopes some volunteer tree-watering will help.

Forty trees will be planted by the end of the school year at Maili Community Park. The small venue featuring a baseball field and basketball courts shares a block with Maili Elementary School.

The Department of Parks and Recreation — one of many city departments hampered by staff vacancies — is hoping to outsource watering responsibilities to volunteers.

“All of our staff is located in Waikiki, so getting out here twice a week is pretty difficult,” said Roxanne Adams, head of the city’s Urban Forestry Division, at a recent Nanakuli Neighborhood Board meeting. 

Planting trees to provide more shade at Maili Community Park is a pilot project for a Leeward cooling project planned by the city Department of Parks and Recreation. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The plan is a pilot project that could be expanded to other parks around Oahu.

“It’s hot, and it’s only going to get hotter,” said the department’s deputy director, Kehaulani Puʻu. 

The shade initiative could be boosted by resident volunteers who can take some day-to-day maintenance off the hands of city workers. Specific plans haven’t been made beyond Maili, and the department will need more money in next year’s city budget to make it happen. 

The Hot Spots

The department received a generally warm reception when it presented the plan at the November meeting in Nanakuli.

“Down here on the Waianae Coast, anytime you use the word ‘cooling,’ that’s helpful, we like that already,” neighborhood board chair Samantha DeCorte told Civil Beat.

Nanakuli is one of the hottest areas on the island. In 2020, the city published a heat index map of Oahu as measured by volunteers and city staff on Aug. 31, 2019. The darker the red, the hotter the area.

In the morning, population centers along the coast tend to be the darkest shade of red, notably in areas like Kalihi, Ala Moana and Moiliili. 

In the afternoon, as the sun goes over the Koolau and the Waianae mountain ranges, Haleiwa, Waipahu and Pearl City light up red. Leeward towns like Nanakuli and Makaha feel the heat as well.

By evening, the setting sun’s rays strike the west side hardest, creating a dark red visual over Nanakuli and a slightly lighter one just north in Maili.

“There’s a few parks in Maili,” said Angel Morales, a resident and mother on the Leeward side. “And they’re all open – like, rarely any trees,” she said.

Many of Honolulu’s neighborhoods lack substantial tree coverage, contributing to high temperatures. (Screenshot/City and County of Honolulu)

Along with being a site used by its neighbor Maili Elementary School, Maili Community Park is also one of five parks on the Leeward coast used for the city’s annual summer day camp program, Summer Fun.

“Our keiki are at this park,” said Puʻu. 

Those factors led the city to choose Maili Community Park for its pilot project, she said. 

The plan calls for the 40 trees to line the perimeter of the ball field to keep spectators cool and provide a respite for players. Artificial coverings in the shape of sails would shade playground equipment. Each tree costs the city about $100, said Adams, the urban forestry head, and materials like stakes to support the fledgling trees as they grow cost about another $100 per tree.

The volunteer work would kick in after the initial planting. 

“So they water those trees two to three times a week, and they’ll be doing that for at least 18 months until the trees are well-established. And then we will maintain those trees,” said Adams.

A Sense Of Ownership

The idea is that Maili Elementary School would be a good partner, and that neighborhood board members who attended November’s presentation can reach out to their own personal contacts for more volunteers.

“We are still working out those details,” said Puʻu.

The city started a similar partnership on Arbor Day last month in Kahuku, when singer-songwriter Jack Johnson and Mayor Rick Blangiardi helped students plant nine trees and left them to Kahuku Elementary School to maintain.

While the area around Maili Moa Farm has shady trees, nearby Maili Community Park offers mostly sun to its users. (Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021)

The watering routine is going well a little more than a month after the trees were planted.

“We created a club,” said Leilani Lauaki, coordinator of Kahuku Elementary School’s Parent-Community network. “Classes are able to volunteer to come and water the plants. And I also know that the Aina In School teacher – her name is Flori Padua – she’s helping with making sure the plants are watered.”

Different grade levels have taken responsibility for different trees, said Lauaki, and have even named them.

Lauaki credited Vice Principal Amanda McCully with spearheading the project.

“The school went much further and is starting to develop curriculum around that,” said Adams, adding that the city is hoping for similar engagement with Maili Elementary School.

While outsourcing responsibility helps the city deal with its workforce vacancies, city officials say it also instills pride and a sense of ownership in local residents and nearby elementary school students. 

“We even love the idea of them naming the trees,” said Puʻu.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by The Healy Foundation, the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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