1. What Cost Waikīkī?
The name Waikīkī means “spouting waters,” a nod to the flowing waterways and rich farmland of taro, rice, and fishponds that in precolonial times characterized this landscape on the island of Oʻahu. 1 Today, Waikīkī remains perhaps the best-known public place in Hawai‘i, yet its image in the popular imagination betrays none of this history. Instead, most Americans’ perceptions of the Hawaiian Kingdom remain essentially static, stalled in the year of Hawaiian statehood — 1959 — even as Waikīkī Beach has continued to be shaped by hyper-global commerce. Waikīkī stretches for less than a mile and a half on the southeastern shore of the archipelago’s most populous island, which is also home to the state’s capital city, Honolulu. Kalākaua Avenue, bordering the beach, is Honolulu’s fanciest shopping street, dense with tourist-centric development; the Hyatt, Marriott, and Sheraton hotels stand within steps of one another, flanked by high-end shops like Jimmy Choo and Fendi. The white noise of the ocean tempers the sound of traffic and the gentle if omnipresent tones of Hawaiian music, both live and recorded, emanating from the resorts.
The name Waikīkī means ‘spouting waters,’ a nod to the flowing waterways that in precolonial times characterized this landscape.
In the past fifteen years, Kalākaua Avenue’s 20th-century stalwarts have been upgraded to keep pace with this more recent development. The open-air, banyan-shaded International Marketplace re-opened in 2016 after a $500 million renovation; the landmark pink behemoth of the Royal Hawaiian and the colonial columns at Moana Surfrider have been brightened up. Sidewalks have been repaved with gleaming white flagstone. But walk a few blocks inland, and you are surrounded by midcentury mid-rise apartment buildings, their exterior walkways and lanais constructed of breezeblock and lava rock, untouched signage riveted to their walls — “Skyliner,” “Waikīkī Winds,” “Pan Pacific.” Palms and banyans disappear along with the breeze, and heat rising from the concrete becomes more noticeable. A few blocks farther, and you’ll hit the stagnant waters of the two-mile-long Ala Wai Canal.
The canal testifies to the persistence of another midcentury illusion; that is, that water can be effectively controlled through massive engineering projects. Construction on the Ala Wai, whose name translates as “waterway,” began in 1921 and was completed in 1928. The canal was built at the behest of the Territorial Board of Health to drain nineteen square miles, almost a third of urbanized Honolulu; it functions as an estuary to prevent flooding between the ocean and the termini of Oʻahu’s freshwater streams, which have mostly now been channelized and buried. When tides rise, salt and freshwater mix in the canal. With heavy rains come animal waste, trash, and surface pollutants from automobile traffic that wash in and stagnate, creating conditions under which bacteria like Vibrio vulnificus, a cause of life-threatening skin infections, can thrive. 2 As if all this weren’t worrisome enough in the era of climate crisis, a rising sea is encroaching from the beach side, while increased volumes of stormwater enter from the city side. The structural integrity of Ala Wai is emerging as a major concern for nearby residents and the Army Corps of Engineers alike. The future of Waikīkī, in many ways the central image of the state, is tenuous.
At issue is a midcentury illusion: that water can be effectively controlled through massive engineering projects.
At the same time — as countless Native Hawaiian scholars, writers, storytellers, and activists have made clear over the past century — this thin strip of beachfront, like much of colonialized Hawaiʻi, was always a mirage. The merchants and military interests who advocated for draining the marsh and building the canal one hundred years ago did so on the pretext of protecting the public from miasmas and mosquitoes, although a more pressing interest was exploitation of oceanfront real estate. 3 The expansion of Waikīkī and the building of the Ala Wai Canal accelerated development and catalyzed colonization on Hawaiian lands. Now this infrastructure has locked state residents in a stalemate between profit and sustainability. The struggle over the future of the Ala Wai Canal is, on the surface, an issue in urban water management. But it is also a microcosm for much larger questions about power, social justice, and the material legacies of colonization.
Given the urgencies of our era, what happens in Waikīkī in the coming years might serve as a model for other cities seeking infrastructural, social, and economic sustainability. Histories of 19th- and 20th-century urbanization tend to be predicated on capital and its efficiencies, favoring those whose financial and industrial resources allow them to literally reshape ground conditions to their advantage. From the point of view of industrialists and policymakers, the variability of landscape ecology and the longterm stewardship necessary to a thriving biosphere can seem inefficient or simply inconvenient; narratives of the American urban landscape too often emphasize the prowess of modern engineering, asking less frequently who holds the power to manipulate infrastructural capacities, separating technical achievement from its societal reverberations.
Two decades into the 21st century, it’s not uncommon to hear that such long-held perceptions and practices are destabilizing under pressure from accelerating climate change, persistent issues in social and racial justice, and widening economic inequities. Whether this is true remains to be seen. Oʻahu measures just under 600 square miles and Honolulu is more than 2,500 miles from any other major city — a location that is obviously radically specific in its history and ecology. Yet the city’s remoteness and small size, as well as the particular violence of its colonial history, only intensify issues that many other cities will also have to confront in the near future.
Prior to colonial contact, the Native Hawaiians or Kānaka Maoli organized governance, settlement, and trade in synergy with hyperlocal landscape ecologies, in a comprehensive system known as ahupuaʻa. It is estimated that Hawaiians began to develop the system circa 1200; in the 15th century, under Chief Māʻilikūkahi, the boundaries of ahupuaʻa (the word is both singular and plural) were surveyed and marked, and their administration regularized. In physical terms, ahupuaʻa are land divisions, typically running from mountaintops to the outer edges of offshore reefs, and encompassing along the way rivers, forests, and farmland. Political scientist Lorenz Gonschor and geographer Kamanamaikalani Beamer note that these land-based demarcations also reflected sociopolitical functions, in a way that was distinct even within the Polynesian islands. 4 The system assured sustainability through binding societal agreements and sophisticated hierarchies of oversight, as well as the careful reading of climate, topography, and water flows.
As the ahupuaʻa system demonstrates, water use is always cultural.
To call an ahupuaʻa a watershed therefore risks oversimplifying its centrality in communal life. 5 But perhaps this risk, in turn, is predicated on a limited, mainland-centric view that understands a watershed as simply a unit in resource management. As the ahupuaʻa system demonstrates, water use is always cultural. Needless to say, power relations were inherent in these arrangements; even an ecologically balanced system can be hierarchical, and while Hawaiian chiefs and kings did not “own” the islands, they served as trustees on the gods’ behalf. The kapu or code of conduct governing land management could be invoked at their pleasure. Yet the overarching goal of these socio-ecological structures was to create shared abundance rather than to amass individual wealth.
According to historian Kelema Lee Moses, “food, shelter, clothing, tools, transportation, and medicine derived from the ahupuaʻa system supported an estimated four hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand Hawaiians.” 6 Several centuries of militarism, tourism, agribusiness, and global capitalism violently undermined that heritage, with reverberations for the health of the archipelago and all its residents, especially Native Hawaiians. Oʻahu remains the most urbanized of all the islands, and since the late 19th century has been most transformed by colonial and military infrastructural projects. The fracture of the ahupuaʻa system and repression of the cultural practices that sustained it — and that it sustained — continue to affect the island’s ecology and food security, as well as the health and spirituality of Native Hawaiians.
As climate disruptions intensify and these calculations in concrete and infill become less and less effective, a growing number of activists, scholars, and community leaders are advocating for a re-centering of traditional water ecologies in Honolulu’s built environment. While recognizing the complexities of multiracial habitation and global investment that have transformed this landscape in the last century, these advocates argue that a more integrated and resilient form of water stewardship remains central to the collective empowerment of Oʻahu residents. This is nothing less than a vision of an emergent watershed urbanism, a paradigm that, if integrated into planning policy, could move towards a reconciliation of landscape ecologies, Indigenous science, and economic justice, in order to assure that even a city like Honolulu can support all its inhabitants over the long term. 7
We all live in watersheds, no matter how catastrophically they may have been disturbed.
To be sure, most places in the world do not have ahupuaʻa, and some solutions being tested on Oʻahu and neighboring islands are unique to this locality. It’s also true, however, that we all live in watersheds, no matter how catastrophically they may have been disturbed. In Honolulu as elsewhere, to reshape our cities around the care of streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, and the lands they water would mean a core rebalancing of power from distal federal and commercial entities to local ones. A watershed urbanism in this sense would require a shift from an economy based in revenue extraction to one based in the maintenance of food systems and other natural resources, with its yield to be reinvested on the islands rather than off. The future of Oʻahu could exemplify a watershed urbanism that re-roots design and planning in Indigenous knowledge, and de-engineers more a century of settler colonialism.
Tourists who haven’t thought carefully about the place they’re visiting can be surprised by the dense urbanity of Honolulu, its aging built forms crammed into a narrow space between the Pacific and the Koʻolau mountain range. In political cartoons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the kingdom of Hawaiʻi was often represented as a compliant young woman serving at the pleasure of mainland America. By 1938, when Lewis Mumford was writing Whither Honolulu? (a report for the City and County of Honolulu Parks Board), the misogynistic trope had swapped out nubile charmer for castoff crone:
Honolulu is a little like a beautiful woman, so well assured of her natural gifts that she is not always careful of her toilet: she relies upon her splendid face and body to distract attention from her disheveled hair, her dirty fingernails, or her torn skirt. Up to a point, such careless self-confidence is admirable; but Honolulu is now like a beauty passing into middle age … The wrinkles are beginning to show; the old wardrobe has ceased to be just quaintly old-fashioned; much of it is now in disreputable tatters. 8
When I first visited Honolulu, I found it reminiscent of my birthplace of Manila, where my mother’s family still lives and where we visited almost yearly until I entered high school, when we moved closer to my father’s family in South Dakota. Like Honolulu, Manila is distinguished by its juxtaposition of American and Asian influences, its high-rise towers and low-slung open-air apartments and schools, its resignation in regard to terrible traffic, and its channelized and polluted waterways that make themselves suddenly and violently known in rainstorms. It wasn’t until years later that I learned to read these characteristics of the built environment as marks of occupation.
I am the granddaughter of an Indigenous Filipino who was forced to push wheelbarrows for miles to deliver rice to Japanese soldiers occupying the Philippines during World War II, who bore a Spanish name given to my ancestors by unknown invaders. I am the great-granddaughter of a Danish immigrant who settled on land stolen from the Lakota nation by the U.S. government. It was not until I moved to Hawaiʻi, geographically halfway between these two colonialized landscapes, that I found myself surrounded by others who understand the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in such a lineage — although, of course, in Hawaiʻi, I was a settler myself. Mindful of such histories, I seek here to recognize, collate, and consider the knowledge and efforts of countless Native Hawaiian scholars, practitioners, and activists, in order to convey the urgent political, climatic, and social conditions under which they are working to reclaim their landscape — and by extension, the political, ecological, and social power that has been taken from them.
I learned to read these characteristics of the built environment as marks of occupation.
When I taught at the University of Hawaiʻi, I lived on the edge of the Mōʻiliʻili neighborhood (also known as McCully-Mōʻiliʻili), which lies just across the Ala Wai Canal from Waikīkī. Mōʻiliʻili is a vast flatland of concrete-slab apartments and strip malls, sliced by thoroughfares like the H-1 interstate. Upland lies the thickly forested neighborhood of Mānoa, one of the wealthiest on Oʻahu, home to the university’s flagship campus. Here, large parks and yards, watered by the omnipresent light rain referred to as “Mānoa mist,” keep the air relatively cool. In Mōʻiliʻili, the heat index can run ten degrees higher. 9 Prior to colonization, these areas of Oʻahu were linked as parts of the Waikīkī ahupuaʻa. Accordingly, to trace a line from Mānoa to Waikīkī, passing through Mōʻiliʻili, is to read a timeline of Hawaiʻi’s settlement and occupation.
Literary scholar and activist Candace Fujikane refers to the fracturing of the landscape under these regimes as a “settler-colonial mathematics of subdivision.” 10 These fragmented landscapes are nonetheless linked by hydrology, and by the engineering projects that, over the decades, have sought to exert maximum control over Oʻahu’s water. Precipitation that falls in Mānoa, the highest point in the Waikīkī ahupuaʻa, is channelized by the time it flows down to Mōʻiliʻili, either buried in culverts or shunted into neglected feeder canals running behind malls and apartment buildings. The Ala Wai Canal diverts this water to prevent flooding in Waikīkī, where business now accounts for more than 40 percent of tourism revenue, almost one tenth of the state’s gross domestic product. Waikīkī’s economy holds the state hostage, putting neighborhoods like Mōʻiliʻili at increased environmental risk.
2. Ahupuaʻa: Water Is Wealth
Colonialist engineering projects like the Ala Wai Canal often view all water — rain, streams, oceans — as a uniform substance to be manipulated, without regard to the hydrological complexity that Indigenous science has long managed in order to keep ecosystems in balance. In Hānau Ka Ua: Hawaiian Rain Names (2015), Hawaiian language specialists Collette Leimomi Akana and Kiele Gonzalez collect more than 200 names for precipitation in the lexicon, each denoting a rain with specific duration, intensity, color, sound, and/or scent. At the same time, in Hawaiian as in any language, a single word can connote many things depending on context. Wai means water. Repeated, waiwai, it means value or wealth. Further polyvalence is expressed, for example, in proverbs:
I kani no ka alae i ka wai.
A mudhen crows because it has water.
A prosperous person has the voice of authority.
Wai can symbolize societal or emotional chaos (overflowing water); or kindness (still water); or vanity (shallow water); or trouble (dirty water):
Ina e lepo ke kumu wai, e hoea ana ka lepo i kai.
If the spring is dirty, muddy water will travel on.
If there is evil at the source, the evil spreads. 11
These expressions, with their emphasis on social relations and linked ecologies, bring to mind the intricate freshwater system that crisscrosses Hawaiʻi’s landmass. Ocean waters carry an equal symbolic importance in Native Hawaiian culture, and are understood as similarly linked with morals, spirituality, and purpose. I once attended a university colleague’s memorial, at which an officiant sprinkled salt and salt water around the courtyard and outside our colleague’s office, to cleanse the building and protect it from any vengeance sought by her spirit. Wai kala, salt water, is the water of forgiveness. Waiwai, then, does not mean wealth as an accumulation of goods. It implies a shared abundance.
A typical ahupuaʻa passes through dozens of microclimates, forming a self-sustaining feedback loop.
As a demarcation on the land, an ahupuaʻa follows the topography, connecting streams and ocean, fresh and salt water; leading from a mountain range (mauka) towards the ocean in a downward flow known as makai, a typical ahupuaʻa passes through dozens of microclimates, forming a self-sustaining feedback loop. The 1870 Hawaiian Government Survey, which mapped but also consolidated a significant number of the ahupuaʻa it surveyed, documented the existence of 1,124 such demarcations. Geographers have since corrected that number to over 1,800 ahupuaʻa once extant across the Hawaiian islands, only about five percent of which conformed strictly to drainage boundaries. 12 Access to water and land inferred social and economic power, as the proverb about the crowing mudhen indicates, and ahupuaʻa comprised political and spiritual districts as well as hydrological and agricultural units. The word itself translates loosely as “pig altar,” because the boundaries of a given ahupuaʻa were delineated, historically, by cairns decorated with carvings of pigs’ heads — symbolizing chieftains — where offerings were made to keep the land productive. 13 Land, ʻāina, is understood in Hawaiian culture as an ancestor, to be cared for but never possessed; this care is fundamental to the philosophy of aloha ʻāina, love of the land.
At its most basic, an ahupuaʻa can be thought of in three sections: upland forests, mid-slope croplands, and aquacultural shorelines, although Kānaka Maoli scholars note that within these divisions there might be more than 20 microclimates and distinct realms of stewardship. 14 A small but significant number of ahupuaʻa were entirely inland or entirely coastal, leading historians to believe that these were defined by particularly strong ties to intertribal trade. Some encompassed just three or four acres and were managed by one family. Others were as large as 100,000 acres. Every ahupuaʻa was in turn subdivided into sections known as ʻilis, and those into smaller plots of land in a nested system of production, stewardship, and habitation. A group of ahupuaʻa comprised a moku, ruled by an aliʻi or chief, and key sites were managed by another tier of overseers. 15
A geospatial analysis conducted by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 2017 showed that, even today, solar radiation, rainfall, and mean average temperature are consistent within historical moku boundaries, verifying that these reflected a sophisticated understanding of microclimates and agricultural yield. The rights of individual families were codified in the kapu, the tribal codes that determined timing and procedures for resource distribution and harvest, as well as restrictions and punitive measures applicable across a given moku. The oral kapu were administered by priests and overseers and adjusted according to regular assessments. 16 Productive use of water and high crop yields would be rewarded with expanded water access for given families, while mismanagement would result in the revocation of usage rights, or even death. 17
The mauka or forested upland was the most sacred zone of an ahupuaʻa; the wao akua, or apex, was believed to be cultivated by the elements rather than by human hands. Other zones were strictly managed to contribute to overall biodiversity. Some forested areas were maintained specifically as bird habitats, or for watershed recharge. Others were used as wood lots, or as gathering ranges for foodstuffs, medicines, and crops like sandalwood and kukui, the candlenut tree, whose nut could be used for medicine, moisturizer, or fuel oil. “There are specific names for kinds of mist in Hawaiian,” explains Dr. Diane Paloma, a cultural practitioner, expert in Native Hawaiian health, and former director of the King Lunalilo Trust and Home, which cares for native Hawaiian elders. 18 “Mist that comes from the ground; mist that comes from the atmosphere. The very fact that Hawaiians knew about those elements defines how they categorize things in the world.”
In his book Hawaiian Antiquities (1898), Kānaka Maoli scholar David Malo recorded Hawaiian names and descriptions for specific kinds of winds, rains, clouds, rock formations, and other landscape elements. Contemporary hydrological studies of Hawaiian forests (confirmed at other sites around the world) have shown that precipitation, fog, and even cloud-derived aerosols at higher elevations each have different isotopic compositions of hydrogen and oxygen, and that the balance of their respective inputs is crucial to forest health. 19 As Paloma points out, Indigenous science understood such ecosystemic interactions, and managed lands and waters accordingly.
Indigenous science understood ecosystemic hydrological interactions, and managed lands and waters accordingly.
Moving down an ahupuaʻa from the mauka to the kula, or plains, one encountered fields called loʻi, for the intensive cultivation of taro, or kalo. Taro roots must be constantly submerged in cool water, which must be kept moving to prevent rot. Loʻi were therefore intricately terraced with earthen berms and rock walls, directing nutrient-rich downflows into ditches and streams. Sugarcane and banana were sometimes grown on loʻi walls to take advantage of their thick sediment. Dry cultivation of taro was also practiced in the kula, requiring constant mulching with banana and breadfruit compost or burnt coconut ash. Taro is fundamental, as well, to Hawaiian cosmology. Land is born of Wākea, the sky father, and Papahānaumoku (or Papa), the earth mother. 20 When their daughter Hoʻohōkūkalani gave birth to a stillborn infant, the gods planted the body, which became the first taro plant, Hāloanakalaukapalili. The goddess’s second child was the first Hawaiian person, named Hāloa after his older brother. As the elder sibling, taro provides sustenance for humans while they, as younger siblings, care for the plant. 21
The lowest portion of an ahupuaʻa is the kahakai, where shore meets ocean, and here fishponds or loko iʻa were kept. Different types of ponds — constructed with various kinds of walls and gates, and fed by fresh or seawater — served different needs. 22 In the early 1970s, archeologist William Kikuchi surveyed the walls, gates, and lanes in historic loko iʻa and catalogued a variety of construction methods, including mortarless stonework using coral and pahoehoe or smoothly cooled lava, with multiple types of core fills and bases. Wooden sluice gates, or makahā, let fish into the ponds while filtering flows and controlling drainage. The fish would feed on rich runoff from the loʻi and grow too big to swim through the gates again; stocks in some ponds were plentiful enough to be caught with bare hands. If ownership ever held sway in an ahupuaʻa, it was here, in that larger loko iʻa were associated with royalty or chiefs. Kikuchi estimates that 449 fishponds were built prior to 1830, when the last new construction was documented.
Across all these land-use divisions, traditional culture stressed communal stewardship. Kehaulani Lum is a kumu, a master teacher of Hawaiian cultural practices, and president of Aliʻi Pauahi Hawaiian Civic Club, part of a network of civic clubs founded in the early 20th century to work on social and legislative issues of concern to Kānaka Maoli. 23 She explains:
There would be a pig’s head on the altar, because that is where you would bring an offering, presumably to grow the abundance of that place. You don’t go and you take from it. You go there to bring things to it. At Makahiki [Hawaiian New Year] everybody would be asked to bring offerings — taxes, in a way — to be redistributed to help everybody else. So we see that ahupuaʻa is not just me, myself. There’s somebody else that I’m trying to serve, another person — and there’s also somebody higher, the very highest, that I’m serving. If we’re only looking at me, the human, that’s where we get stuck. 24
Across the 19th century, maps drawn according to the scales of moku, ahupuaʻa, and ʻili defied the Jeffersonian grid and resisted the growing forces of colonialism, to emphasize the power of collective stewardship over private ownership. 25 In 1837, Samuel P. Kalama’s Hawaiʻi Nei (the phrase translates loosely as “this beloved Hawaiʻi”) named and color-coded ahupuaʻa across the Kingdom. 26 The 1870 Government Survey, initiated by King Kamehameha V (1830-1872), and executed by W.D. Alexander, a White cartographer, can also be understood as a sociopolitical act of resistance on behalf of Native Hawaiians, given that its mapping of ahupua‘a followed the 1848 Māhele or “division,” a legal and political reorganization of land rights that had been decreed by King Kamehameha III (1814-1854) under duress from White settlers, opening legal avenues by which they could seize Hawaiian lands.
3. The Waikīkī Ahupuaʻa: Fracture, Drainage, Erasure
The Waikīkī ahupuaʻa belongs to the Kona moku. It is fed by three major streams, Mānoa, Pālolo, and Makiki — now largely channelized when not buried entirely — and encompasses the Waikīkī, Mōʻiliʻili, and Mānoa neighborhoods. The upper reaches of the Mānoa forest still receive a mean annual rainfall of 151 inches, despite the fact rainfall has declined across the state. 27 Upland pools and waterfalls were traditionally used for bathing, and crops grown there were primarily sandalwood and ulu or breadfruit, which yields a dense and highly nutritious fruit similar in texture to a potato. Wild pigs, which feed on tree ferns and strawberry guava in the forest, were also traditionally hunted for food — and can still be spotted occasionally at the edges of the UH Mānoa campus.
Mōʻiliʻili, in the kula or mid-slope, was once the breadbasket of the Waikīkī ahupuaʻa. It was one of the first neighborhoods in Oʻahu to receive settlers, especially Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s, who took up the taro farming that Native Hawaiians had long practiced. As the area urbanized into a patchwork of housing, industry, and ponds, a wave of Japanese newcomers arrived, most of them having been freed from their labor contracts on sugar plantations, in the aftermath of Hawaiʻi’s 1898 annexation by the U.S. government. 28
Waikīkī, the ruling seat on the island of Oʻahu from approximately 1350, was a rich landscape of taro fields, fishponds, and duck farms.
Waikīkī, at the lowest point of the ahupuaʻa, originally comprised the natural estuaries of the three main streams, in a marshy zone that included taro fields, fishponds, and duck farms. These rich resources linked the area to chiefs and royalty; Waikīkī was the ruling seat of Oʻahu from approximately 1350, and after the archipelago was consolidated into one kingdom by Kamehameha I (1795-1819), his residence was there. Even after he moved west along the Oʻahu shore, Waikīkī served as a royal resort. Captain James Cook arrived in the Hawaiian islands (which he promptly renamed the Sandwich Islands) in 1778, with a crew carrying diseases that are estimated to have killed as much as 90 percent of the population. Native historians such as Noenoe Silva have pointed out that mainstream histories of Hawaiʻi tend to gloss over the extent to which disease weakened the monarchy, which was perceived by its people as powerless to save them from the waves of missionaries and other foreigners that came in Cook’s wake. 29
Kamehameha III, who ascended to the crown in 1825, was wary of missionaries’ growing influence, but ultimately adopted European- and American-style laws in the interest of preserving Hawaiian sovereignty by preempting assumptions about an “uncivilized” nation that could be easily conquered by imperialists. 30 The 1848 Māhele was part of this strategy. The “division” was intended to apportion Hawaiian land in thirds among the crown, chiefs and managers, and commoners, but instead resulted in the sale of many of these lands to settlers and corporations. The decree is still viewed by many Native Hawaiians as a tragedy. By the time it was completed, just one percent of the archipelago’s four million acres belonged to its original citizens. 31 Many families who had farmed for generations under the ahupuaʻa system were granted ownership of their parcels in an arrangement similar to mainland homesteading. But the government was expanding, and many seats were now held by the growing haole or White non-native population. In 1850, a council established by American missionaries and businessmen passed the Alien Land Ownership Act, ensuring that the king’s decree would allow for land purchase by settlers and foreigners. The colonizers bought property or were gifted it by chiefs, then leased it back to the government. Parcels were sold without regard to their interdependence within larger ecosystems.
By 1890, three quarters of private land in Hawaiʻi was owned by foreign investors, predominantly Americans. As historian Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa points out, legalistic private land tenure ran radically counter to the premises of ahupuaʻa, and the social adjustment was difficult. She writes, “The Native system had been ordered by a reciprocal obligation and understanding. … In capitalist theory, private ownership of ʻāina offered each individual great opportunities for private wealth, if one but understood the rules of capitalist society. But capitalist rules were not easily understood by or logical to Hawaiians.” 32
Most of the seized property was planted with sugar, and this profoundly changed Hawaiʻi’s physical, political, and economic landscape. 33 The tropical climate and well-drained, mineral-rich volcanic soil proved remarkably well-suited for sugarcane, and when production in Louisiana slowed during the Civil War, haoles in the Hawaiian government threw support behind plantation agriculture. The Board of Immigration recruited workers, primarily from China, Japan, Portugual, and the Philippines; upland areas were deforested to build mills, and cane fields competed with the taro fields for water. 34 Unlike the slow and deliberate flows required in a loʻi, sugarcane needs fast-moving irrigation, and flumes were installed. The turn of the century also saw the establishment of pineapple as a cash crop. James Drummond Dole founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901, and went so far as to buy the entire island of Lanai to cultivate as a plantation. 35
By 1890, three-quarters of private land in Hawaiʻi was owned by foreign investors, predominantly Americans.
Much of Hawaiʻi’s steep and densely forested uplands remain undeveloped to this day, but some Americans built estates there — including department-store magnate Amos Cooke, whose son Charles was part of a group of Americans who forced King David Kalākaua (1836-1891) to sign the 1887 Bayonet Constitution, transferring power to a colonialist governing body. When Kalākaua’s sister Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917) ascended to the throne, she sought to draft a new constitution that would return some powers to the monarchy and extend citizens’ voting rights. Two-thirds of the voting population supported this measure. But in 1893 another clique of merchants, led by Sanford B. Dole (James Drummond Dole’s cousin), organized an illegal takeover assisted by the U.S. military. Sanford Dole was installed as Hawaiʻi’s president. Two years later, Dole’s regime quelled an uprising by Native Hawaiians, imprisoned the Queen, charged with her treason, and sentenced her to a $5000 fine and five years’ hard labor. By her own account, this was solely intended as a humiliation; the sentence was commuted to a year of house arrest at ‘Iolani Palace.36 Charles Cooke Sr. joined the haole–dominated Provisional Government, and argued for Hawaiʻi’s annexation by the United States. Castle & Cooke would go on to become primary investors in the Matson Navigation Company, now shipping conglomerate Matson, Inc., and in 1932 they bought out Dole’s operations as well. 37 According to an investigation by Honolulu magazine in 2015, the firm of Castle & Cooke remains one of the largest landowners on Oʻahu.
As plantations and plantation-workers’ housing spread across the island, ditches and wells were dug to carry water from the island’s wet windward side to the more arid leeward side. In Mānoa, around the Cooke estate, streams still flow freely; the famous Mānoa Falls are a short hike above the residential area, and the mist is constant. In Mōʻiliʻili, in contrast, the landscape has been scraped and excavated repeatedly. A notable percentage of this flatland terrain sits on a vast karst of coral limestone that holds freshwater — a geological anomaly that has long influenced life there. Oral histories describe pumps and pulley systems installed by Mōʻiliʻili families to access the groundwater, and steps were cut into coral caverns some ten feet below the surface; a UH student once told me that her grandfather could dig a hole in his backyard and catch fish. 38
In the mid-20th century, Mōʻiliʻili was known as the “Floral Capital of Honolulu,” home to flower farms that also tapped the groundwater. The centrality of these waters to neighborhood history is perhaps best exemplified in the famous Willows restaurant, long located on a Mōʻiliʻili back street. The Willows was established in 1944, on the site of a homestead once owned by descendants of the Kamehameha dynasty, to cater to military personnel stationed on Oʻahu. In the 1950s, the restaurant expanded with an open-air cocktail bar, and proprietors tapped the karst to feed their koi pond. “From the rich and powerful to the average working family, everybody came to The Willows,” writes Laura Ruby in a history of the area. 39 But in 1998, a new owner replaced the karst-fed koi pond with a constructed lily pond, and in 2018 the restaurant closed for good. As in Waikīkī, the vestiges of Hawaiian hydrology are gradually disappearing in Mōʻiliʻili.
As Honolulu expanded, the inland neighborhood of Mōʻiliʻili transformed into a kind of back-of-the-house to Waikīkī.
As Honolulu expanded, Mōʻiliʻili transformed into a kind of back-of-the-house to Waikīkī, spread out below Mānoa’s estates. Strong community ties persisted among Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Hawaiian residents in this working-class enclave, and the neighborhood developed as a patchwork. In 1934, road construction inadvertently punctured the karst. Ponds were suddenly dewatered and sinkholes formed; trees at The Willows wilted and the koi escaped, only to turn up in ponds miles away. 40 Similar phenomena occurred in the 1960s, when pilings driven for the modernist Varsity Building on University Avenue reportedly disappeared overnight, likely sunk into an underground hollow. 41 Development nevertheless continued unabated, and the low wooden houses that had been typical of the neighborhood were replaced with concrete-block walk-ups and parking lots. 42 The Japanese cemetery, established in 1908 (it also holds Chinese, Portuguese, and Korean graves), now sits unceremoniously wedged between the H-1 highway and ramshackle apartment buildings. The cemetery was neglected for decades, until in 2017 volunteers cleared trash, built a new lava-rock wall in place of the chain-link fence, and planted palm trees. Excavations for the wall turned up discarded fishing lures.
Mōʻiliʻili has in many ways borne the brunt of infrastructural impositions on Honolulu’s landscape. A recent survey found that only two percent of the neighborhood comprises parks or public space — and most of this is Stadium Park, a fourteen-acre parcel where Honolulu Stadium stood until 1976, now increasingly the site of encampments for the city’s unhoused population. Residents are fond of the community garden on Coolidge Street, but there is a long waitlist for its 59 small lots. In a community conversation convened by UH Mānoa in 2014, 73 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement “Mōʻiliʻili has a physical environment that supports physical and mental health behaviors.”43
The racial heterogeneity of contemporary Mōʻiliʻili reflects not only the area’s history but the multifaceted politics of Asian immigration in Hawaiʻi — a complex inheritance that helps to explain why struggles for equity and environmental justice involve more than a binary of settler colonialists vs. Native Hawaiians. Rather, as scholars like Fujikane and Dean Itsuji Saranillio have argued, full consideration of settler colonialism requires parsing the various forms of economic and political power held by ethnic groups in the state. Hawaiʻi is often painted as a multicultural utopia (a picture I’m partly guilty of invoking). 44 In fact, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos have been both subject to and complicit in systems of exploitation, assimilation, and resistance.
Scholars and activists such as Haunani-Kay Trask point to the fact that many Asians gained wealth and government positions when the territory became a state in 1959, which in turn perpetuated a narrative that only Native Hawaiians failed to assimilate. 45 A 2018 report from the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism showed that residents of Japanese and Chinese ancestry in particular had higher levels of education and lower levels of unemployment than Native Hawaiians. Residents of Japanese heritage make up 40 percent of the legislature despite being 20 percent of the population, and have passed laws that further restrict Hawaiian independence and rights. On the other hand, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Marshallese and other Pacific Islanders tend to attain less education than Hawaiians, with Pacific Islanders in particular experiencing a far higher rate of unemployment. 46 Filipinos and Pacific Islanders have also suffered disproportionate COVID-19 mortality rates. 47 As historian Laura Ruby explains, in Mōʻiliʻili, these varied histories and demographic differences have made it difficult for residents to mobilize around plans for the Ala Wai watershed.
Mōʻiliʻili sits in the shadow of contemporary Waikīkī, which is defined by the twin forces of militarization and tourism that loom large across the state. The wetlands of Waikīkī were occupied at the turn of the last century mostly by Chinese rice and duck farmers. But in the 1920s, the area was dredged, the Ala Wai Canal was built, and the marshes were drained into it, in the process mixing fresh and saltwater, destroying reefs, and killing off freshwater rice fields and duck ponds, as well as the shoreline aquaculture fields. 48 The American military had identified the area we now know as Pearl Harbor as a desirable port in 1873, and collaborated in the 1893 overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani. 49 The wetlands supposedly threatened public health with mosquito-borne diseases like cholera and yellow fever — despite the fact that the archipelago had mostly dodged epidemics that beset the mainland.
These well-publicized fears were also a pretense under which the military could occupy Waikīkī and seize the land now known as Fort DeRussy. The fort was built in 1908, on marshland dredged and filled to expand the beach for military exercises. The military is also largely responsible for ocean pollutants around Oʻahu, especially at Pearl Harbor, and for the beach erosion caused by concrete seawalls. 50 As the artist-architect and activist Sean Connelly puts it, “Honolulu is not just a capital city, but a utopian fort.” 51
The racial heterogeneity of Mōʻiliʻili reflects the multifaceted politics of Asian immigration in Hawaiʻi.
The negative consequences of these bunker-like engineering projects are increasingly obvious as climate crisis accelerates, and have become particularly acute in regard to the tenuous situation of the Ala Wai Canal. 52 To describe the story in its broadest strokes: In the late 1980’s, the city of Honolulu and the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources worked with community organizations to initiate an environmental assessment of the canal’s notoriously terrible water quality, and reached out to the United States Army Corps of Engineers for funding. Years of delay followed, until at last, in 2018, the USACE announced a new planning initiative, The Ala Wai Flood Risk Management Project. 53 In its initial iteration, the project relied on plans for enormous dams and detention basins in upstream neighborhoods, as well as higher walls around the Ala Wai Canal. Residents of the watershed who live outside Waikīkī, especially those near the proposed basins, objected to a plan so clearly focused on the tourist haven. Despite its pollution, the canal is used for canoeing and is flanked by a walking-and-cycling path that remains popular; the proposed walls would cut off recreational access. Costs for the plan were estimated at $345 million, with about a third to come from the state and the remainder from the federal government.
An activist group called Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed (Connelly is a founding member) has harnessed resistance to the Flood Risk Management Project by uniting constituents across economic and topographic sectors of the watershed outside Waikīkī, from the hillside neighborhoods of Pālolo and Mānoa to the less politically powerful Mōʻiliʻili. In 2019, the group brought a successful suit to stop the sale of certificates of participation that would fund the project. 54 Sidney Lynch, president of POAWW, explains that the plan relied on decisions handed down from the distant reaches of USACE offices in Louisiana and Washington State, even going over the heads of Corps project managers in Hawaiʻi. The result was an emphasis on flood control at lower elevations that ignored larger issues of habitat restoration across the watershed, including upkeep as simple as removing plant debris in the upstream detention basins, and the flooding that would result if the basins clogged. 55
Throughout this process, plans by the USACE have been kept largely opaque to residents and even state and city governments, even as those plans continue to loom over and threaten to stymie local efforts. 56 What is clear is that the Corps remains focused almost exclusively on the prevention of flooding. Efforts by the City and County of Honolulu have run parallel in some ways to these concerns — but counter in others. In 2016, voters established a Mayor’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency. The issue of sea-level rise understandably occupies most of the office’s time.
But they have also grappled with the fact that Honolulu, like most American municipalities, administers different types of water use through separate agencies. Wastewater management falls under the purview of the Department of Environmental Services; stormwater management is overseen by the Department of Facility Maintenance; and drinking water is controlled by the Board of Water Supply. The Mayor’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency has put forward a “One Water” philosophy, which views freshwater, sea water, drinking water, stormwater, wastewater, and water reuse as a unified system, much as the Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous groups have for centuries. 57 These plans, too, will be impacted, and perhaps superseded, by whatever the Corps decides. 58
Engineering projects have emphasized flood control, ignoring larger issues of habitat restoration across the watershed.
The Ala Wai Watershed Flood Management Project is now uncomfortably caught between the state, the feds, and increasingly unhappy community members. The canal is being dredged again by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, to remove accumulated sediment and repair walls, maintenance that is already years behind schedule. After recognizing shortcomings in their initial flood control models, the USACE revised its plan in late 2020. The price tag for the new version, unveiled in January 2021, topped $651 million; among other features, the revised plan adds a four-story pump station at the Ala Wai Canal itself, and eliminates the detention basins in Mānoa in favor of culverts and bypass channels that would move water swiftly through the city. 59 At not quite double the original projected cost, the revised price tag effectively stalled the project once again, and by the summer of 2021, Hawaiʻi had lost over $200 million of promised federal support. Honolulu’s new mayor Rick Blangiardi recently announced that the USACE is reevaluating the Ala Wai Flood Risk Management Project yet again. This time, per new guidelines adopted by the Corps itself, the study must be completed in three years. 60
4. Health and Ahupuaʻa Restoration
Water stewardship via the ahupuaʻa system is of course just one dimension of Native Hawaiian culture that has been fractured, subverted, and even criminalized over the past 200 years. American Calvinist missionaries who landed in 1820 forced Hawaiians to adopt a written language of twelve letters (limited by the missionaries’ comprehension of Hawaiian phonetics), so that the population could be converted in mission schools. More than three quarters of the adults on the islands became literate within a decade of the alphabet’s introduction, and newspapers in Hawaiian emerged as a key tool for proselytization, reporting on missionaries’ activities while making sure to disparage Hawaiian spiritual and medical practices. Independent newspapers produced by Kānaka Maoli, such as Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika (founded in 1861), were condemned as obscene or denied access to printing presses. 61
Gradually, even the written Hawaiian language was erased from the public sphere, starting with a law stating that only English versions of bilingual agreements were binding. By 1896, only English could be spoken in schools, and teachers rebuked parents for speaking Hawaiian in their homes. 62 Children were taken from their families to be enrolled at English-only Christian boarding schools. Each population of course has its own history, but the experiences of Kānaka Maoli echo those of Native Americans on the mainland, the First Nations in Canada, and the Maori in Australia.
The ahupuaʻa system is just one dimension of Native Hawaiian culture that has been fractured, subverted, and even criminalized.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Hawaiian Renaissance arose, inspired by mainland activists such as the Black Panthers and members of the American Indian Movement. A revival of Hawaiian music, cultural practices, and language succeeded in 1976 in overturning the law banning Hawaiian language in schools. This led to the establishment of Hawaiian immersion programs and, in 1978, Hawaiian was established as an official language in the state — the only state in the nation to recognize a second language. Significantly, it was also in 1978 that the state constitution was amended to recognize the “obligation to protect, control, and regulate the use of Hawaii’s water resources for the benefit of its people.” This set the stage for establishment of the State Water Resource Management Commission in 1987; their motto Ke Kahuwai Pono identifies the members as trustees who “oversee the rightful sharing of water.” 63
The cultural revival also encouraged a renewal of interest in traditional socioenvironmental ethics. In 1973, state senator Kenneth Francis Kamu’ookalani Brown (1919-2014) made his famous “Mālama Hawaiʻi” speech in the legislature. “The Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary defines Mālama thus,” Brown told his fellow lawmakers.
“To take care of, care for, preserve; to keep or observe, as a taboo; to conduct, as a service; to serve, honor, as God; care, preservation, support; fidelity, loyalty; custodian, caretaker.” Because he knows so many ways to destroy his natural environment, Man must now become its custodian and caretaker for his own sake … Mālama is thus an imperative. It is applicable to our entire lives in Hawaiʻi. It is applicable to all our transactions with each other, to all of our transactions with the overseas world, and to all of the transactions between society and nature. Each of these transactions must meet the test of mālama at all times, without exception. 64
Yet the waves of development that pushed families off ancestral lands in the 19th and early 20th centuries continue to reverberate in healthcare, housing, and food security. The Hawaiʻi State Department of Health reports that Kānaka Maoli currently have a life expectancy of 74.3 years, roughly four-and-a-half years below the state average and the lowest among Hawaiʻi’s major ethnic groups. Their rates of obesity and smoking are the state’s highest, as are their mortality rates for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; they are more likely to be uninsured. 65
The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, passed in 1921, sought to preserve land for those with at least 50 percent Native Hawaiian blood, but the program remains contested, not least because Native Hawaiians identify through genealogies and connections to specific lands, rather than by proving a blood quantum. 66 A diaspora of Native Hawaiians is still being pushed to the mainland (notably to Las Vegas, which has a tourist economy comparable to that of the archipelago, but markedly lower real-estate prices). 67 The exponential rise in home prices has also made it hard for these migrants of circumstance to return; the median price on Oʻahu is now over $900,000, up 20 percent from March 2020.
The primary purpose of the ahupuaʻa system was to provide nourishment for the islands’ people. The colonial-era conversion to export crops, and the resulting eradication of breadfruit, taro, and other staples central to the ahupuaʻa, have done more than threaten food security; the plantation economy also decentered cultural stewardship practices that fostered these integrated modes of production. On the fringes, such practices persist. Yet Hawaiʻi now imports 90 percent of its food. 68 A disruption on the Matson shipping line can immediately be felt in grocery stores; it is estimated that, at any one time, Oʻahu has a three- to ten-day supply of food.
Even without disruptions, grocery bills are almost 30 percent higher than on the mainland, with an average price for a gallon of milk at around seven dollars across the state. The Hawaiʻi Department of Health estimates that while nearly seventeen percent of the state’s population is food insecure, among Native Hawaiians the number is 35.7 percent. Governor David Ige has set a goal to double food production, measured in pounds, by 2030 — but the state dashboard continues to show downward trends. 69
Taro cultivation, and the problems it has faced, exemplify these entwined relationships. Benefits of the loʻi systems go beyond the high nutritional value of taro and the environmental importance of surface-water collection and retention. Runoff from the loʻi can also feed other plants, as well as fish and shrimp downstream. There is also some evidence that loʻi restoration would help to fix nitrogen levels, preventing further degradation of coral reefs. 70 Taro is poisonous if not steamed or boiled, and its best-known form, poi, requires the cooked root to be pounded and stretched until it reaches a gummy consistency, after which it is fermented. Poi is calorie-rich and high in vitamins, but bringing taro to its full potential as a superfood requires knowledge handed down through generations. Such small-scale, labor-intensive crops and processes have been crowded out by agribusiness even after the last sugar plantations on Oʻahu closed in the 1990’s; large growers have turned to other high-value commodities that trade on associations with Hawaiʻi, including macadamia nuts, coffee, and flowers. 71
Against the odds, however, the stewardship of water according to the ahupuaʻa system remains central to the ways in which Native Hawaiians and their allies seek to empower themselves and build community. The activism of the POAWW is one example. Other local programs focus on food security. Dr. Jane Chung-Do, a professor of public health at UH Mānoa, has worked for many years with the residents of Waimānalo, a largely Native Hawaiian community on the eastern side of Oʻahu. Along with community leader Ilima Ho-Lastimosa, she founded a program called MALAMA, which stands for Mini Ahupuaʻa for Lifestyle and Meaʻai through Aquaponics (meaʻai means “food”; mālama, as Senator Brown explained to his colleagues nearly 50 years ago, means “to take care of”).
Participants assemble in cohorts of ten families each, and learn to build low-cost aquaponics basins out of easily obtainable materials like plastic tubs and wooden tables; adapting the ahupuaʻa model to residential scale, they raise fish, vegetables, and medicinal plants. 72 Dr. Paloma used gardening as a therapeutic social activity at Lunalilo Home, and as director of the Native Hawaiian Health Program at Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, she used land-based learning in the adolescent inpatient psychiatric unit. Considering the cooperative aquaponics program, Dr. Chung-Do notes, “What is emerging is its impact on mental health, neighborhood cohesion, social cohesion, family functioning [as well as] consumption of fruit, vegetables and fish. This openness to their attitudes towards food [also impacts] their sense of cultural identity as being Hawaiian.”73
Against the odds, the stewardship of water remains central to efforts by Native Hawaiians to empower themselves and build community.
Other local projects have been working to rebuild Indigenous infrastructures at larger scales. In 2007, the Department of Transportation and a neighborhood group, Ko’olaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club, led an effort to mark the contours of eleven historical ahupuaʻa on the windward side of Oʻahu, to remind residents of their kuleana or responsibility for land that is not bounded by tax bases or zip codes. 74 The He’eia ahupuaʻa, also on Oʻahu’s windward side, is a model of restoration ecology as well as an important site for the passing on of cultural practices through land-based education, with native plants flourishing in the mountains and water flowing through a kalo field to a reconstructed fishpond. However, this achievement is not necessarily scalable; it entailed 20 years of patching together complex land agreements and partnerships, as well as the efforts of thousands of volunteers who helped to reclaim — and now maintain — these lands and waters. 75
Fishpond restoration has also been a focus for civic-club organizer Kehaulani Lum. In what might seem like an unlikely partnership, she has been working with the U.S. Navy to restore Loko Pāʻaiau, a six-acre pond on McGrew Point near Pearl Harbor that is estimated to have been built 400 years ago. 76 Navy archaeologists found almost half the pond intact, with a mortarless construction that could still filter water, though invasive mangroves choked the site. With thousands of volunteer-hours donated by civic clubs, schools, and the military, the pond has now been largely rehabilitated. Loko Pāʻaiau serves as a community-education site, and volunteers are constructing a hale or open-air gathering structure. Service members with PTSD visit from the Tripler Army Medical Center for therapy, and Lum’s colleague Bruce Keaulani guides the soldiers in offering hooponopono — a Hawaiian prayer of reconciliation.
Such small but meaningful social reparations have occurred in concert with transformations in the fauna around the fishpond. When the mangroves were cleared, native plants came back; Navy divers examining the structure have found large mullet that can now swim freely. Lum has seen other changes:
They’ve also found birds going clockwise over the Koolau and ending up in sanctuaries on that side, right near Lā’ie. So those are native species, endangered birds, returning — and we have at least four or five of them, different kinds that have returned as we built up the [fishpond] wall. The bigger flocks are returning — kolea, aku. So there’s something happening. 77
The ripple effects of this single pond’s transformation have yet to be confirmed by quantitative measurement. But it’s strongly worth considering other ways in which knowledge is produced, especially in Indigenous cultures. 78 Lum’s recounting of the ecological shifts around Loko Pāʻaiau is a talk story, a Hawaiian mode of social communication that can describe anything from a casual after-work chat to ceremonial sharing of oral traditions. I’m reminded of my talk story with Dr. Paloma about the distinctions in Hawaiian language between mist in the air and on the ground, verified by hydrological study. These are not random observations, but appraisals of phenomena that are grounded in years of generational wisdom and close relationships to the land. Such insights are climate science, too, and translating them into practice will require that scholars and policymakers create space for more of these conversations.
5. Towards a Watershed Urbanism
In Honolulu, as in most places, some will be more harmed than others by the effects of climate change. The celebrated trade winds, which once made air conditioning unnecessary across much of Hawaiʻi, have slowed in recent years, and heat waves come more often. 79 In the leeward towns of Waiʻanae and Nānākuli, it is sometimes hot enough to trigger school cancellations. Real-estate prices are comparatively low in these communities, and many Native Hawaiian social services and Hawaiian Homestead lands are located there; not coincidentally, they are home to the largest populations of Native Hawaiians on Oʻahu. Agricultural lands left fallow after the closure of plantations are overgrown, leading to wildfires — and wildfires, especially on the coast, represent a compounded ecological threat, as debris washes into the water, where it chokes fish and coral reefs already compromised by rising ocean temperatures. 80
Effective reclamation of ahupuaʻa will require investment in social cohesion and community well-being in the present, and for the future. As planners Annette Koh and Konia Freitas write,
Architects and planners frequently refer to the importance of preserving a Hawaiian sense of place, but focus on place as environmental amenity or represent Hawaiianness as a bygone history with a plaque to commemorate the inhabitants of old Hawaiʻi. … Decolonial practices and Indigenous urbanism are not counter-factual fantasies that require a time machine. 81
As Lum warns, even moves toward “nature-based” green infrastructures often consider only the physical requirements for “sustainability,” failing to address inequities between local constituencies — especially those whose lives, however urban, remain attuned to the nonlinear rhythms of wildlife, plants, and weather, and the knowledge of these cycles accumulated through generations. Such nominally “green” projects remain predicated on exerting power over land and water, rather than empowering the communities whose land and water are at stake. Many stories of European or American settlement are on some level stories of colonization, and in turn stories of attempts to control water through the imposition of hard infrastructures. How, then, should we reconcile Indigeneity and landscape in a hyper-urbanized 21st-century location, in which these rigid forms continue to structure the built environment, even as their failings become ever more apparent? What does a city look like when it starts to center, rather than erase, its Indigenous residents and environmental histories?
All watersheds are natural systems synergized, as ahupua‘a are, through topography, resources, climate, and socio-cultural histories of use.
The ingenuity of the ahupua‘a system is unique to Hawai‘i — not simply in regard to the system’s physical and logistical capacities, but in its deeply rooted connections to spirituality and sovereignty. So perhaps this integrative model can’t truly be replicated anywhere else. It is also true, however, that all watersheds are natural systems synergized, as ahupua‘a are, through topography, resources, climate, and the sociocultural histories of use, each particular on its own terms and all intertwined. In their speculative proposal, “The Commonwealth Approach” (2012), landscape architects Rob Holmes and Laurel McSherry show how the borders of the United States would appear if redrawn according to the management of rivers and aquifers, resulting in 86 “commonwealths.” 82
To move towards a watershed urbanism is to seek to build these commonwealths both in and beyond cities, and in so doing to repair a built environment that treats water as a material to be mastered, rather than an elemental force of abundance and a fundamental vector of survival — and hence of human rights. Watersheds connect people across race and economic lines, and thus present opportunities for organizing collective power; caring holistically for watersheds requires specific place-based approaches and deep landscape knowledge. None of this can happen under the crushing forces of colonialism, which persist through the material realities of infrastructural imposition and the hoarding of power.
Watershed urbanism thus asks us to reconfigure the false binary of city versus nature, and to understand how ecology can truly serve all those who live in densely built locations, especially the most vulnerable. To decolonize is to reckon with colonialist history and its present-day effects, to acknowledge that these effects remain part of our landscapes both literally and psychically, and to begin the processes of deconstruction. Decolonization can sound like an abstraction. But the ahupuaʻa is a social, technical, hydrological reality, has a model for practical sustainability in projects as small as a tabletop garden, and as large as the rethinking of entire watersheds. Each iteration is its own form of resistance.
As histories of colonial occupation continue to crack open, more opportunities arise for the reclamation of Indigenous lands, cultures, and sovereignties — not only in Honolulu, but in other cities and regions confronting the acute effects of the climate crisis. Which is to say, almost all of us. To borrow a metaphor from political scientist Noenoe Silva, it is when we start to re-examine history that resistance, like water, rushes in and alters the forms that seek to contain it. 83
If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.