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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 9, 2010

City's idea for APEC promotion intriguing

By James H. Spencer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, held last year in Singapore, will move to Honolulu for its 2011 conference, and the city needs to develop a distinct identity before the event convenes.


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APEC 2011 is coming to Honolulu in November 2011. It's an important distinction to make that the Asia-Pacific region's top leadership and their entourages are not coming to the state of Hawai'i, but to the state's major city, Honolulu.

Between now and then, we would do well to develop a strong and vibrant identity to keep us in the minds of the world's most dynamic collection of nations. The city of Honolulu has embarked on an interesting campaign to promote itself based on the idea of a "21st century ahupua'a," which shows some promise, but suggests few actionable ideas.

But I'm still encouraged by this idea because it is the first step toward creating a unique and compelling identity for Honolulu that can bring residents together and embed the message in the minds of the tourists, business owners and students that we would like to contribute to our place. It suggests an identity that is culturally and historically rooted, integrates human and environmental resources for prospering societies, and in doing so knits mountains, plains and oceans into a mutually dependent social, political and ecological entity.

In fact, the powerful part of the concept is the structured diversity of land (and water) uses into a single region. Governance of those complex socio-ecological regions was the brilliance of a traditional Hawaiian society that saw the need to keep internal to the known political system the diverse resources upon which all depended.

This brilliance, however, was not borne of some kind of indigenous affinity toward "sustainability" as we might now construe it. Rather, I suspect it stemmed from a perceptive view of the limitations presented by life on an island with limited land mass and little connection to a larger society, as well as the limitations of steep valley walls.

Today, we face different limitations of isolation such as the discomfort of long flights, high transport costs for daily goods, and an insufficient tax base due to a limited population. Refocusing our city development efforts from an ahupua'a perspective is promising because like our forebears it can set our sights outward toward the ocean rather than inward.

As with any intriguing idea, however, the 21st century ahupua'a's promoters risk over-promising and under-delivering.

According to the city's Web site, the 21st century ahupua'a means: transit, alternative fuels, green construction, sensitivity to host culture, reef and forest protection, recycling and more agriculture. While none of these things is bad, they don't jump to mind as particularly "ahupua'a-ish."

Instead, it sounds like plain old sustainability and localism, which will not work as a strategy for the future; Portland, Vancouver, and others have a leg up on us. Yes, do all the sustainability things, but that is not a city development strategy for Honolulu.

With globalization and new technologies, today's scope of view stretches far beyond what could have been conceivable even 100 years ago. Today, our ahupua'as are the Pacific, the Mainland U.S., East Asia, Southeast Asia, and perhaps even South America. What are some possible first steps toward making a modern ahupua'a real?

• Facilitate cheap and comfortable transportation up and down these ahupua'as for business, tourism, and family visits.

• Better integrate financial transactions between Honolulu and these ahupua'as.

• Develop labor market exchanges across them, and creatively think about co-financing shared infrastructure to make the ocean between the Honolulu and offshore land masses more productive.

• Strengthen Honolulu's neighborhoods to reflect and encourage these identities through supporting the arts and businesses that strengthen these ties.

Yes, we should make every effort to promote sustainability, conserve energy and buy local. But don't let that turn our backs to the seaward parts of the 21st century ahupua'a.