Our terrible pattern of suburban sprawl recently led to the inglorious distinction of Honolulu being named the most congested city in the United States. The average person in Hawaii now spends 58 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s hours of sitting, torn away from our families and exposed to the stress that leads to higher levels of depression and obesity. And if we keep building in the same fashion, this problem will only get worse, not better.
Poor planning and our outdated development model lead to millions of tons of CO2 being pumped into our atmosphere and billions of dollars wasted. Roughly $7 billion is spent on energy in Hawaii every year, including $2.5 billion on automobile fuel. These dollars aren’t reinvested in Hawaii: they go to oil companies and foreign countries.
Simply saying “no new growth” is not the answer. Hawaii needs more affordable places to live. According to some reports, Honolulu has the second highest rate of homelessness in America.
So what’s to be done? First, stop building so-called “affordable” single-family housing on prime agricultural land. Tens of thousands of tract homes now cover much of central and leeward Oahu, all connected by congested freeways. Tens of thousands more homes are already zoned and entitled in new suburbs with names like Makaiwa Hills, Royal Kunia, Waiawa Ridge and Kapolei West.
These projects, such as the proposed Koa Ridge and Hoopili monster developments, are not a part of Hawaii’s sustainable future. They’ll lead to more traffic and pollution, and ever-greater dependence on ever-more-expensive imported food and fuel. Historically, such projects do little to reduce the cost of housing. The definition of “affordable” housing proposed by developers is preposterous–affordable, perhaps, for doctors and lawyers, but not for the average resident.
Smart growth would mean careful planning for the families of today and our kids’ future. It would consider Hawaii’s current and long-term food needs and security. It would consider alternative transportation and how to move us off fossil fuels.
Above all, we must push development back into the urban core.
If we direct growth back to the city, we have a chance to steer unemployed construction workers into the burgeoning green jobs market. Federal statistics show that if we made one percent of the homes on Oahu more energy efficient, we’d create 800 to 900 new construction jobs as well as reduce residents’ month-to-month electricity costs. Already in the past five years, our solar industry has grown by leaps and bounds, providing thousands of new jobs while helping wean Hawaii off dirty fossil fuels. Taller city buildings demand more-skilled, better paid workers. This should be the future of Hawaii’s construction industry.
Large new housing projects should be directed back into the urban core. Oahu could see a mix of mid-rise four-to-six story buildings and taller apartment towers in areas like Kakaako, Iwilei, Moiliili, McCully, Kalihi, Pearl City, ‘Ewa and Kapolei. This type of growth would create sustainable jobs and make our lifestyles more sustainable than that of commuters in mega-suburbs. It would be a more efficient use of infrastructure, such as sewers. Done right, this type of growth brings vitality to older neighborhoods, improves health and safety and strengthens diversity by promoting social interaction and cultural ties.