The natural beauty of the islands stands in stark contrast to encroaching urban sprawl.

Re-Scape the city

Text Tina Grandinetti
Art Sean Connelly

On the most isolated archipelago on the planet, it’s easy to assume that life in Hawai‘i is far removed from the rest of the world. But as agricultural lands shrink, traffic congestion intensifies, beaches recede and the cost of living continues to rise, it is becoming increasingly clear that Hawai‘i’s growing pains reflect much larger planetary issues. Sean Connelly, an O‘ahu-born architect, urban designer and visual artist, takes these problems seriously and believes that traditional Hawaiian resource management systems can help to solve them. Over the past several years, much of his art and research has revolved around land use in Hawai‘i. The result is an ambitious conceptual plan for reorienting Hawai‘i’s urban development around streams through a modern-day ahupua‘a system. Summit sat down with Connelly to learn more about his vision for a uniquely island urbanism.

Summit (S): In a nutshell, what is the aim of the Hawai‘i Futures project?

Sean Connelly (SC): Hawai‘i Futures is a virtual exhibition and ongoing installation about the future of the city in Hawai‘i. The project was first launched in 2010 and I’m currently getting ready to publish new sets of research, maps and diagrams that include 3D models of every moku (district) and ahupua‘a (ancient land division), adapted for the future, and approximate residual land values of all areas within 1 meter of sea-level rise and 330 feet of every stream on O‘ahu. With diagrams and real maps, the research is meant to provide our community with some visual representations of what it could look like if the ahupua’a system was implemented as an approach to citymaking. It’s a simulation of an ahupua‘a-based vision for population growth, food production and development in Hawai‘i, which felt important to share because urbanism is not something we can ignore: 90 percent of the population in Hawai‘i is now urban, and relies on imported energy and food resources that contribute to the larger global issues of climate change and social inequity.

S: What do you think are some of the biggest problems with our current development practices?

SC: That’s a tough question because the problem is so big and global that it’s hard to even see it anymore. Yet we can feel how things are changing, especially with how expensive it’s getting to live in Hawai‘i. Current development practices are often tangled in global financial systems that thrive on actively disconnecting communities from their local resources and ecologies. For me, this relates to the structure of our land-use system, which divides land into single-use urban, agriculture and conservation districts. These districts physically separate where people live and grow food, and fail to regulate what goes into streams and shorelines. Our current land-use system reinforces our dependence on importing global resources.

Additionally, when looking at how these land-use districts then overlap with land ownership, most of the agriculture land on islands like O‘ahu are left to large land owners. Many problems with development practices that affect things like local food security, saving agriculture lands, protecting reefs and respecting sacred places relate to land-use and the paradigms and ideologies upon which this current system has been established. Unfortunately, at the core of these systems is a mentality and worldview that was really designed for continents, not volcanic islands.

S: On O‘ahu, approximately 40 percent of land is classified under conservation zoning. That sounds like a substantial amount, but your work suggests that, in addition to the amount of land we conserve, we must also think about what kind of land we conserve. You focus a lot on streams and watersheds. Why are they so important?

SC: Watersheds are much more than the drainage basins for streams; they are the most complex and important form of solar energy that we have available today. Hawaiians are the experts on understanding the complexities and affordances of this energy resource, which is fluid and thermodynamic. The architecture of an ahupua‘a has a lot to do with proximity to the resources available within a watershed—stream, forest and topography—which all effect the availability of water and, ultimately, political and cultural systems as they emerge in proximity to these available resources. Because what we build, where we build it, and how, does affect the kind of economy we have and the ability for our islands to serve as energy sources in and of themselves. Our ability to reclaim ahupua‘a will determine how we achieve a resilient and self-reliant economy for Hawai‘i.

A computer model showing the alternative “centers” around which to orient neighborhoods: schools. Whereas TOD make transit the core of a neighborhood, for an island system, a variety of mobility options can make it possible for schools to play a more visible and important role in defining our neighborhoods.

S: We’re all familiar with Transit Oriented Development (TOD)—urban planning that is centered around access to public transit stations—but you’ve put forward a twist on the idea. Can you explain the concept of Place Oriented Development?

SC: Our neighborhoods are more than transit stations. While transit can stimulate shopping and real estate, Hawai‘i neighborhoods deserve more meaningful and intentional ways of organization. What about food and farming? Spiritual spaces? Education? The phrase Place Oriented Development addresses the conceptual frustration I have with TOD. Whereas TOD is concerned with concentrating development within the immediate radius of a transit station, place-oriented development is more concerned with how that development is distributed across the scales of interactions found within each watershed. At the regional scale of the watershed, place-oriented development looks like neighborhoods organized to respect streams and shorelines. Orienting development towards place means access not just to transportation options, but also to food options, whether that is access to farmers markets or spaces where food is grown in your neighborhood. It also means access to resources like schools, local businesses, and community services, and even political districts.

S: How can reorienting development with the watershed help with political and economic issues like affordable housing?

SC: Issues of affordability are some of the hardest to talk about because they’re probably among the most difficult to solve. In terms of policy, we could talk about federal and state interventions, tax incentives, rental vouchers and social programs. Or we could talk about minimizing materials and constructions costs. In terms of my research focus, I’m attempting to dive down to the deepest, fundamental levels of how land is actually valued in the first place. I approach it this way because I believe that we may never figure out the issue of affordable housing if we continue to try to solve the problem within an economic paradigm that actually thrives on housing becoming less and less affordable. The idea of reorienting development around streams and watersheds engages us to consider the kind of shifts in priorities that are necessary to become less reliant on the forms of global systems that cause housing to be unaffordable in the first place.

A graphic showing the line between native forests upland, and rapidly invading species such as strawberry guava

S: We often frame indigenous land management practices as “tradition” rather than as complex, advanced technologies. What is the value in recognizing these practices as ‘āina based technologies?

SC: Especially with all that’s happening on Mauna Kea, I believe recognizing traditional systems and practices as advanced forms of technology is important to counter the sometimes racist, sometimes primitivist perspectives of people who say, “We can’t have ahupua‘a because its retrogressive and backwards; we live in a technological world now.” If you look into the theory and philosophy of the word “technology,” it actually means any human-made system that engages the flow of resources and information. Recognizing the ahupua‘a system as technology is a way to help people see that when comparing the past to the present and future, it’s not like apples and oranges at all. There’s a continuity that we can uncover. It’s a matter of rephrasing things in a contemporary way so that people who are mistaken can better understand ways in which the past can be seen also as glimpses of the future.

S: Hawai‘i Futures lays out a 100-year plan to redesign urban Hawai‘i, recognizing that it will take a lot of work to realize such drastic changes. What kinds of social change do you think will need to occur before we start working towards this vision?

SC: Well, the promising thing is that a lot of the social change is already happening: fishing rights are being integrated into how waters are accessed and managed, efforts to revitalize lo‘i kalo and loko i‘a are underway (see “Konohiki calling,” originally published in Summit Issue 1.1), and people are participating in the production of resources that sustain us. And technology is approaching a capacity to confirm indigenous ways of living as legitimate coded science itself. As long as people continue to organize, fight for and demand ahupua‘a, we can continue moving toward the larger structural changes in our land use system necessary to amplify the energy happening at the grassroots level.

But to wrap up on a deeper philosophical level, I think we also need to question the very notions of time itself. Its sounds crazy, but I think it’s crucial to address different paradigms of time, such as the difference between the continental notions of mechanical clocks, hours and minutes and oceanic notions of the moon, currents, ebbs and flows. For example, a continental notion of time perceives land as static, or something that can be made static, while a oceanic notion of time accepts that land is moving, that it floats, and that it’s something that altogether has an agency of its own. That’s the kind of depth and scale of thinking that we need next, and is what Hawai‘i Futures is trying to realign with. It’s important because our current political and economic systems don’t match up with the scales and durations of time in which Earth actually operates. I know that’s vague, and maybe many people won’t get it. But I also know that a lot of people do get it, because it’s there in the history of humanity as an ancient species. Luckily, we have culture to empower us toward higher and higher levels of change for Hawai‘i’s future.


Summit is Hawaii's global magazine of ideas, style and smart living. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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