Ala Moana Beach Park

The Future of Honolulu Depends on Its Parks

Public parks have emerged as battlegrounds in the city’s response to a changing climate and a growing housing crisis. Could they also hold the solutions?

Story by Timothy A. Schuler

Photography by John Hook

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In the early hours of Oct. 9, 2017, Hawaii state sheriffs cleared the last remaining homeless families out of Honolulu’s Kaka’ako Waterfront Park. As of 10 p.m. the night before, the park — along with the adjacent Kaka’ako Gateway and Kewalo Basin parks — had been declared closed “indefinitely.”

The parks in question comprise some 40 acres of public space within Honolulu city limits, and the homeless encampments within the parks had become too large for the state to handle. “Right now, with dog attacks and exposed wires and broken plumbing, it’s just not safe,” said Jesse Souki, then the executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority.

For years, homeless encampments have sprung up in the city’s public parks. Sweeps are conducted periodically but the encampments often reappear a few days later. It’s a pattern that has drawn ire from certain community members, whose frustration reached a boiling point this past October. “That’s what has enraged law-abiding residents,” wrote Denby Fawcett, a columnist for Civil Beat, a Hawaii-based nonprofit news outlet. “The sense of entitlement of homeless people who seem to believe they have a special right to commandeer public land because ‘there is nowhere else for us to go.’”

Honolulu isn’t alone. In municipalities across the United States, proliferating “tent cities” have created friction between local governments and surrounding communities. Hawaii has the largest per capita homeless population in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the recent park closures have reignited a debate about who has rightful claim to the land and what constitutes public space.

At the same time, Honolulu’s parks — a not insignificant network of beaches and ball fields and tree-lined promenades — are under threat from climate change. Many are adjacent to the ocean, making them vulnerable to sea level rise and king tides, which can exacerbate beach erosion.

In other words, some of the most pressing issues facing Honolulu are playing out in its parks amid clashing social, ecological and recreational priorities. These spaces can be seen as a sort of barometer for the city’s environmental and socioeconomic health — a gauge that provides feedback in real time.

Recently, however, Honolulu was selected to be part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, an international network of urban centers that stretches from Los Angeles to Lisbon to Seoul. Honolulu’s inclusion brings with it an increased focus on the myriad environmental benefits that green spaces can provide the city. If Honolulu’s parks currently show signs of stress, they may also have the potential to save the island from disaster.

A Model Mini Park

On a recent Saturday morning, a group of about 20 people gathered in Loʻi Kalo Mini Park in Kalihi, a working-class neighborhood west of downtown Honolulu. The park, a triangular sliver of green space, is largely hidden from the street; on one side, it’s tucked behind houses and restaurants, and on the other, separated from the neighborhood by a deep, cement-lined canal. It has essentially no amenities, playground equipment or ball courts — just a large pond at its center and a pavilion at one end.

In the group were high school and college students, several young couples and a retired Marine. Over the course of three hours, they weed-whacked, raked and cleared the pond of California grass. It was a typical community workday, the kind that might take place in cities around the country, except in one regard: A good portion of the morning was also spent planting, harvesting and eating.

Lo'i Kalo Mini Park

Loʻi kalo refers to a taro patch, one of the dominant forms of agriculture in pre-contact Hawaii, and the park has several of them that are irrigated by freshwater springs that seep out of the ground. A group of volunteers harvested the mature kalo (the Hawaiian term for taro), pulling the entire plant from the mud and carrying it to a small, rock-lined waterway near the pavilion. There, they washed the kalo in the water, trimmed off the small noodle-like roots and sliced the corm from the stalk. The stalks were then replanted (to be harvested next year), while the corms were peeled with pocket-knives and placed in a pressure cooker that was plugged into a portable generator. At the end of the morning, the volunteers stood around the pavilion, nibbling on the gray-white kalo, which is soft and starchy like a potato but sweeter and slightly chewy.

It was the first time some people in the group had seen kalo harvested, which for Robert Silva, Loʻi Kalo Mini Park’s de facto caretaker, is the point. In a place like Kalihi, there aren’t many opportunities for people to connect with nature or Hawaii’s cultural heritage. “I always say this is the diamond in the rough of this concrete jungle. You don’t see this much grass in the entire ahupua’a,” Silva says, using the term for a section of land that stretches from the mountains to the sea, the way the Hawaiian islands historically were divided. “It’s cement all the way down.”

Loʻi Kalo Mini Park is owned and operated by the city. It has existed in roughly its current form since the 1970s, when it was a botanical garden. Centuries before that, according to stories, the area was a gathering place for Hawaii’s ali‘i, or ruling class. Silva had volunteered in the park while a teacher at nearby Damien Memorial School, but in 2015, he returned for the first time in more than a decade. The park was completely overgrown, the California grass so thick across the water that he could walk the length of the park without getting his feet wet.

For Silva, who studied ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa (UH-Mānoa) and is part native Hawaiian, the park is more than a place to be outside — it’s an opportunity to learn about native plants and important cultural practices. Over the past two years, he has not only helped revive the park but also transformed it into a type of edible cultural garden, planting young ohia lehua, lama and ulu (breadfruit) trees, as well as ’aka’akai, a type of bulrush that can be woven into mats.

It’s something Silva would like to see done in other parks around the city. “Personally, I think every ahupua’a should have a working loʻi,” he says. Silva also says that some volunteers have expressed interest in planting kalo in their neighborhood parks, so “hopefully, it’s triggering people to want to do things.”

The loʻi in Kalihi also provide other benefits, some of them in line with the city’s burgeoning resilience efforts. For instance, kalo, along with other plants like ʻaeʻae, can help filter runoff. The water in the adjacent canal is so dirty, Silva says, “so pilau, it’s crazy.” Right now, “if a pig pees up there,” he says, pointing to the mountains, “the pee is gonna be here, because it’s running on cement. It never gets filtered. It’s just pee up there, pee down here.”

Silva says Loʻi Kalo Mini Park offers an opportunity to filter that runoff and hopefully dilute the canal to less polluted levels. He plans to have the water tested to see if his methods are working. If they are, he says, “I wanna break holes in the [canal] and start growing plants instead of cement.”

The Potential of Parks

Exactly how Honolulu might take the lessons of Loʻi Kalo Mini Park and apply them throughout the city is top of mind for Josh Stanbro. Stanbro works out of a corner office on the ninth floor of a the Fasi Municipal Building perched on the edge of Honolulu’s Civic Center. His office is small and nondescript but has large windows that provide sweeping views of the Hawaii State Capitol and, to the north, Oahu’s jagged Ko‘olau mountains.

As Honolulu’s chief resilience officer and executive director of the city’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, Stanbro leads a team of six whose job it is to help the city become better able to weather climate “shocks,” such as major hurricanes, as well as long-term “stresses,” such as sea level rise or increasing cost of living.

Stanbro was hired in May 2017, almost exactly one year after Honolulu was chosen to join 100 Resilient Cities. (Next City has partnered with The Rockefeller Foundation on its 100 Resilient Cities initiative in the past.) Member cities receive funding for resilience-related projects and a framework for developing a long-term resilience strategy. Stanbro’s office, which he describes as a “policy shop,” is now working with both city leaders and outside organizations to develop such a strategy for Oahu.

Due to their geographic isolation, islands are especially vulnerable to climate change. Among the biggest threats to Oahu, Stanbro says, are the increasing strength and frequency of hurricanes, Oahu’s dwindling supply of freshwater and the gradual acidification of the world’s oceans. “As much as sea level rise is a threat to human infrastructure, at some point you’re still able to move back,” Stanbro says. But if Hawaii were to lose its reefs due to rising carbon dioxide levels in the ocean, it would lose a major form of coastal protection, not to mention tourism dollars, biodiversity and a significant source of food. And of course, any sort of natural disaster would also likely cause an economic slump, which would only exacerbate unemployment and homelessness.

Meanwhile on Oahu, average annual rainfall, streamflow and trade wind days are all decreasing, while average air and ocean temperatures are on the rise. Will these trends continue? “They don’t know,” Stanbro says. “It’s global weirding. We have entered an era where we don’t have precedent.”

Assuming they do, Stanbro says Honolulu’s parks will be vital to the city’s future. In fact, several of the top shocks and stresses identified during early workshops conducted by the resilience office can be mitigated, in part, through the design of the city’s public spaces.

Lo'i Kalo Mini Park suffered from underuse for years. Now it's used to grow kalo.

Parks and natural areas provide what are known as “ecosystem services,” things like natural cooling and groundwater recharge. But they also can be designed to minimize erosion, as well as absorb and filter stormwater.

Brooklyn’s Sponge Park, for instance, uses plants to filter out pollutants like excess nutrients and heavy metals, and can treat up to two million gallons of stormwater annually. In China, where rapid development has disrupted the country’s natural hydrology, the government is working to build entire “sponge cities” using natural and manmade landscapes to absorb water and prevent catastrophic flooding. Harbin City in Heilongjiang Province, for instance, has the approximately 75-acre Qunli National Urban Wetland, a functioning park and visitor destination with elevated boardwalks and modern pavilions.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution but science shows that a healthy ecosystem is largely resilient by nature, and able to adapt and regenerate. In theory — and increasingly in practice — the more our cities operate like an ecosystem, the more resilient they will be.

And one way to build resilience into Honolulu’s parks, Stanbro says, is by turning them into “food forests” through planting more fruit and nut-bearing trees or edible plants like kalo. “I would love to see a breadfruit tree in every park,” Stanbro says. “If you think about a hurricane and what’s happened in Puerto Rico — I mean, Puerto Rico produced way more of its own food on island than we do, and they still had such a huge issue bringing in supplies. We’re in a much worse position.”

Pu’uhonua, a Place of Refuge

If Loʻi Kalo Mini Park is a model for Honolulu in many ways, it shares one challenge in common with the others: the city’s growing homeless population. In 2017, although the number of unsheltered homeless living in Hawaii dropped by 9 percent compared to the previous year, the number grew on Oahu (though some say it’s because previous years’ counts were inaccurate).

Early on in Silva’s clean-up efforts, he would visit the park and find the ground littered with used syringes. He found the most in and around the banana grove, which offered drug users an easy place to hide. He recently cut down a number of the trees in order to open it up. “I’d rather have fruit from them,” he says, “but once they start growing, they get so packed, [people] can hide in there.”

At the moment, Silva’s solution has been to keep the park’s gate locked. For a majority of the day, a group of community members hangs out near the gate with a key. “If you ask them, they’ll let you in,” he says. It’s a temporary solution — the city can’t keep the park under lock-and-key indefinitely — and just one more way in which Honolulu’s parks reflect some of the harsh realities of island life.

Recently, however, some have begun to question whether or not parks and other public lands could be put to use to temporarily house the homeless.

In particular, a group of state legislators has proposed a series of legal encampments for the city. They argue that law enforcement sweeps are ineffective and therefore a waste of taxpayer dollars. “To have these law enforcement sweeps of homeless, unless you have an end game, it’s futile,” says John Mizuno, a state representative whose district includes much of Kalihi. “What are you accomplishing?”

Mizuno is one of the lawmakers pushing for what he calls “ohana zones,” or family zones, which are places where homeless families and individuals could camp legally and also get access to showers and social services. The encampments would have security and be temporary, he says, operating for a specified period of time or until residents find permanent or transitional housing. He says parks and other city- or state-owned parcels could serve this function.

It’s a model that’s been successful elsewhere. Seattle has six legal encampments serving several hundred individuals. Three were added in 2017 after a report concluded that the first three camps had transitioned approximately 40 percent of residents into housing in their first year. All are located on public land. Based on Seattle’s experience, San Diego opened its first city-sanctioned homeless encampment in October 2017.

The idea has slowly gained traction in Hawaii. The state opened its first encampment — dubbed a “safe zone” — last year. Created by Hawaii Island mayor Harry Kim, Camp Kikaha, as it’s known, occupies state-owned land outside Kona, and provides a secure location and social services for roughly 30 people. The mayors of Kauai and Maui have expressed interest in opening similar facilities. On Oahu, the residents of Pu’uhonua o Waianae, an informal settlement of several hundred people located on state property 30 miles from Honolulu, have argued that the notion of an ohana zone has precedent on these islands. In Hawaiian culture, a pu’uhonua was a refuge for those who needed asylum.

Ala Moana Beach Park is well-used, but not all of its sections are used equally. The beach and water sections are more popular than the green spaces tucked back from the water.

As controversial as it may be, it’s worth asking if there was an alternative to closing Kaka’ako Waterfront Park. What if, instead of the continual sweeps and eventual closure, the state had devoted the same amount of resources to transforming the area into a temporary pu’uhonua?

It would have made a kind of sense. The park has never been as popular as other waterfront parks because it lacks a beach, and its steep hills are ill-suited to most sports. The park is also essentially a dead end with no connectivity to other parts of town. Bounded by water on three sides, it can only be accessed from the north.

Then there’s the park’s checkered past. In the early 1900s, what is now part of Kaka’ako Waterfront Park was home to an informal settlement of Hawaiian and hapa (part-Hawaiian) families. The area was known to some as “Squattersville,” since the families lived on government-owned land. Historical accounts describe the houses that lined the shore as “sturdily built” and lively gathering places for extended family and friends, who would fish on the shallow reef and gather limu (seaweed).

Around 1926, the families were evicted and their houses torn down. The area was converted into a dump, which in 1992 was capped and made into a park. In a response to Denby Fawcett’s op-ed, Bianca Isaki, an attorney and lecturer in women’s studies at UH-Mānoa, observed that with this history in mind, the current sweeps can be seen as part of a larger pattern of forced removal in Kaka’ako.

“Fawcett also avoids known disparities in public-land management with her suggestion we should rage against those ‘who seem to believe they have a special right to commandeer public land,’” Isaki writes. “Across our coasts, unregulated wedding photographers, yoga sessions and surf tours proliferate. Branches of the military lease thousands of acres for $1 per year. … In this light, the homeless’ ‘special right’ is only wrong because it is unattended by political influence.”

We tend to think of land as immutable and permanent, but history tells us otherwise. What today is a park, 40 years ago was a landfill, and 50 years before that, a village of hundreds of people. Ala Moana Beach Park, one of the Honolulu’s most popular parks, was also once a dump and had no beach until the 1950s. Magic Island, now a mecca for walkers and runners and picnicking families, was originally built to be the grounds of a resort complex. Like so many other things, parks are the product of political will.

Who has rightful claim to Kaka’ako Waterfront Park? Fawcett argues it is Honolulu’s “law-abiding citizens.” Setting aside the assumptions embedded in such language, a disproportionate number of Hawaii’s homeless are Native Hawaiian. Given Hawaii’s colonial history, “Give us back our parks” could be met with the rejoinder, “Give us back our lands.”

There is almost no chance that Kaka’ako Waterfront Park will be designated an ohana zone. State officials have made up their minds, and the park is also part of an area slated for redevelopment. Plus, legal encampments remain controversial. Both Scott Morishige, the Governor’s Coordinator on Homelessness, and Marc Alexander, the executive director of the city’s Office of Housing, have opposed safe zones on the basis that they don’t work, and furthermore, that they divert funds from strategies that do. Morishige says Honolulu has tried safe zones in the past, at Aala Park in the 1990s, and more recently near Kaka’ako Waterfront Park. In both cases, he says, these safe zones that were intended for families soon attracted individuals, often men, who struggled with mental health or substance abuse issues. Instances of assault increased and the city was forced to shut down the encampment.

This is at odds with Seattle’s experience. In its report evaluating its first three encampments, the city found that there had been no measurable increase in crime. Morishige acknowledges that it may depend on how a camp is structured. Seattle’s encampments are relatively small, ranging from 20-70 people each, and increasingly eschew tents for small, simply-built structures. They are at least partially self-governed and, as with Mizuno’s proposed ohana zones, offer security and social services.

Mizuno says several parcels in and around Honolulu are currently being evaluated as potential ohana zones. He thinks such facilities can make the city not just more equitable, but also safer and ultimately more resilient. “There’s no magic wand,” he says. “But we need to do the humane thing. If you just say, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ that’s not good for the community. If you take care of your community and you reduce homelessness, and people are working and paying taxes, guess what? Your economy is probably going to be doing good, and your community is going to be a lot safer.”

Places for Experimentation

From a planning perspective, the location of Honolulu’s existing encampments offer clues as to where public land is underused. Among the strategies employed by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to keep public areas free of the homeless is increased “activation.” And yet, if activity is a deterrent for the homeless, then the presence of homeless is also an indicator of underutilized space.

Alex Vasudevan, a professor of human geography at the University of Oxford, has said that those living in informal communities are “able to reanimate wasted urban spaces and shape them in ways that point to a rather different understanding of what cities are and how we might live in them.”

Vasudevan was speaking specifically about squatters, but the distribution of homeless in Honolulu does seem to be correlated with park usage. Although DPR doesn’t have data, recent observations — made at various times of the day on both weekdays and weekends — reveal what most residents intuitively know: Honolulu’s beach parks are by far the most trafficked green spaces in the city, followed by the larger district parks, which offer amenities like tennis courts or swimming pools. Accordingly, these parks tend to have far fewer homeless compared with smaller mauka (mountainside) parks, such as Aala Park downtown. (The frequency of law enforcement patrols is also likely a factor.)

Harrison Rue, the community building and transit-oriented development administrator for the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, says it’s not just mauka parks, but also the mauka sections of the beach parks. A quirk of park planning in Hawaii is that a lot of the recreational activity that parks need to accommodate takes place not on land, but in the water. “There’s like seven to 10 layers of use, from people way out in boats fishing to people stand-up paddling, then surfing and then you’re body-surfing, swimming, wading, and then you’re on the beach.” As such, these mauka sections tend to be the least used. Visit Ala Moana Beach Park on a holiday weekend and it’ll be packed, Rue says. “But it’s almost all makai section. Mauka sections are, I don’t want to say vacant, but spotted.”

Kaka'ako Waterfront Park was one of three parks closed by the authorities when homeless encampments became too big to handle.

It is in these areas — the small slivers of green space tucked back from the water — that the city has room for experimentation, be it food production or stormwater management or even temporary shelter. The challenge will be funding. Like most city parks departments, DPR operates on a severely limited budget, and unlike some cities, Honolulu has no nonprofit parks conservancies that raise funds for maintenance.

This is where the Rockefeller network could help carry some of the burden. 100 Resilient Cities has what are known as platform partners, which are design firms and other entities that have pledged pro bono services to the network cities. Matt Gonser, the Coastal and Water Program Manager in Stanbro’s office, is hoping to work with Dutch experts to address sea level rise and other water-related challenges in Iwilei, a waterfront commercial area that is undergoing redevelopment. Such projects cost the city nothing, and at the same time bring global expertise to bear on complex local issues.

Right now, the parks department seems to view recreation and resilience strategies as mutually exclusive. Michele Nekota, DPR’s director, says the department is open to the idea of implementing green infrastructure on its properties but that it cannot sacrifice playing fields and other amenities.

Thomas Lim, the director of the Office of Planning and Management Systems for UH-Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTaHR), says this sort of thinking misses the point. Hawaii’s parks and public spaces can account for recreational use, food production, water management and more, all within a single landscape. He says it’s about layering these uses and considerations into the design of the landscape. Lim is currently working with Susannah Drake, designer of Brooklyn’s Sponge Park, to think through what resilience should look like on CTaHR’s Mānoa Campus.

Drake would like to think even bigger. She says with enough funding, it would be possible to create a scheme using policies, regulations and landscape interventions to sustainably manage the water in Mānoa Stream all the way from its source to where it empties into Ala Wai Harbor. A key opportunity, she says, is the city-owned golf course along the Ala Wai Canal. “That’s such a perfect place to hold water,” she says.

In 2016, as part of a student design competition for the Ala Wai Canal, a team from Arizona State University proposed a number of strategies for the Waikiki watershed; among them was the transformation of the golf course into a so-called “watercourse” that would restore streamflow and wetlands across a “beautiful, functional, world-class wetland golf course.” The varied and amphibious landscape would mitigate flooding, filter stream water and runoff, and “provide opportunities for cultural engagement and tourism.”

“That whole landscape between the mountains and Waikiki Beach could be this big, wonderful vision of how holistic stormwater management can happen,” Drake says. “If I could do one thing the rest of my life, it would be that.”

During the first resilience workshop Stanbro’s team led in 2017, he got some news that makes him optimistic about Hawaii’s future. Honolulu was the second-to-last city to schedule its kick-off workshop, which meant the leaders of 100 Resilient Cities had observed 98 other cities talk through — and often disagree on — what they thought were their biggest threats. But in Honolulu, everyone generally agreed on the city’s vulnerabilities, as well as its strengths. Rockefeller staff told Stanbro they had never seen a community that felt “so cohesive,” Stanbro says.

For Stanbro, a city’s culture is as important as its infrastructure, and Honolulu’s social cohesion will be vital in a time of crisis. In this way, the city’s parks already are responsible for much of the resilience that exists in Honolulu. Barbeques, birthday parties, paddling clubs, triathlons — gatherings of all types take place along the beach on public land that is meant for all. “This is where people come together to do their social-bonding, and that’s going to be the resilience asset for us,” Stanbro says. “Because you can build tons of green infrastructure and you can harden your structures to Category 4, but what it really comes down to in the end is how well you work together in the face of a crisis.”

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Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the environment. He lives in Honolulu. 

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