Healthy Cities

Honolulu has an Achilles heel—its economy.


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What makes a healthy city? it’s a question we explore regularly as a city magazine, always measuring the quality of life in Honolulu. While there’s no place quite like Honolulu, there are things all cities have in common, going back, it turns out, 7,000 years, to when people first clustered together in towns. So I’ve learned from The City, A Global History, by Joel Kotkin (2005, Modern Library, New York, $21.95).

In this terrific little book, Kotkin identifies three traits that define successful cities, regardless of their era, culture or technology level: a sense of being a sacred place; safety and security; and economic opportunity. In this book’s 218 pages I stumbled across an unexpected warning relevant to Honolulu.

Once a city loses one or more of the three above strengths, it can go to pieces. In the time of Nero, Kotkin notes, Rome’s population was 1 million, the world’s first megacity. By the seventh century, its population was down to 30,000 and Rome had lost its grip on all three aspects of a healthy city.

How does Honolulu fare against Kotkin’s three measures? The first, sacredness, is hard to define in modern times. Through most of history, cities were organized around religion, with temples as the central architecture, the priestly class in charge of even agriculture and economics. In our secular age, we derive sacredness from the shared accomplishment of having built the city together over time—Honolulu is a story we tell ourselves, a narrative to which we belong. A city’s distinct cultural and intellectual life can also transcend the mundane. The very skyline of a city can be awe-inspiring, and as unique as a fingerprint. Hawai‘i’s rare, natural beauty adds something spiritual and sacred to Honolulu.

photo: Bryan Busovicki/istockphoto

Safety and security? Honolulu is a very safe place. Crime rates are low. We have no bread riots, barbarian invaders or open gang warfare in the streets, all of which have threatened one great city or another. Public corruption happens, but, by and large, most of us play by the rules. Just be careful trying to cross the street.

But then there are economics, probably Honolulu’s most vulnerable quality. Healthy cities, Kotkin illustrates, accommodate growth by investing in infrastructure and supporting a dynamic economy. This is one area in which I’m not sure city life in the Islands is keeping up. Between 1980 and 2005, Hawai‘i’s population grew 32 percent. But, according to one of the fast facts in this issue, the portion of land in Hawai‘i designated as urban (which includes suburbs such as Kapolei) has only increased by about 19 percent. We seem to be hemming ourselves in, denying the reality that our cities need to grow.

Our biggest civic challenges involve infrastructure. Our roads are ragged and crowded, our sewers aging. The price of housing in this city reflects its scarcity—O‘ahu’s median home price of $640,000 is more than five times the national median of $119,600. This is shutting young families out of the middle-class prosperity a city needs to stay alive.

Historically, in city after city, when people can’t move up, and can’t move around, they move out. That seems to be the greatest threat to Honolulu’s future.

There’s still a Rome today, a vibrant city now after centuries of misery and irrelevance. There will probably be a place called Honolulu for centuries to come. But who would want to live here if, like Rome, it all falls apart for a couple of hundred years?

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