Planning documents often have a life span that expires along with the administration that launched it. And then it recedes to a dusty back shelf somewhere, languishing until it’s outdated … and the whole process must start again.
What Josh Stanbro hopes will sustain the “Ola: O‘ahu Resilience Strategy” is the fact that its basic framework came from a long, intensive community conversation over the past two years.
The plan concerns climate change — as well as other factors that have made Honolulu living less resilient. The public awareness of climate change is established, reinforced by what people see of erosion, storms and rising tides, and is not likely to subside, he added.
“This is not an issue that is going to go away, and it’s only going to become more and more prominent to wrestle with, unfortunately,” said Stanbro, hired by Mayor Kirk Caldwell in 2017 as the city’s first chief resilience officer.
One of the first acts of the new Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency that Stanbro heads was to develop a directive on climate change and sea level rise that the mayor signed almost a year ago.
This happened in response to a report from the city’s Climate Change Commission, and in the midst of a two-year process of forging a full-scale city resiliency strategy, a wide-ranging blueprint that encompasses more than climate.
The mayor himself devoted his State of the City address to the strategy, which was released in May. In addition to preparedness for storms and rising sea levels, it’s also about everything else that’s wearing away at Oahu residents, and their ability to make a life here and feel they belong.
High cost of living. Housing shortages. Dependence on fossil fuels. Vacation rentals overtaking residential communities. A lack of depth in job opportunities. A loss of cultural identity. Weakened bonds with neighbors and diminishing volunteerism.
If all of this seems remote from the core issue, Caldwell assures you that it is not.
“It deals with our entire state,” he said, “and our ability to survive, adapt and thrive.”
The strategy was developed using the City Resilience Framework (CRF), a methodology developed by the planning consulting firm Arup and The Rockefeller Foundation and its 100 Resilient Cities project.
The framework guides cities by identifying what drives their becoming more resilient — in the areas of health and well-being, economy and society, infrastructure and environment, and leadership and strategy.
Settling on the right formula for Honolulu involved a series of community meetings, starting in 2017 with a launch led by a team from the foundation, Stanbro said.
“When we kicked off this process, we had 150 folks who got together at the Blaisdell,” he said. “We were the 99th city to kickstart the process … they said they had never seen so much agreement across all the different stakeholders in that room.”
Right from the start, everyone was in accord about the key element in Honolulu’s unsustainability: cost of living. If the hope is to build reinforcements against erosion — whether that’s caused by the seas or by economic forces — that represented a good starting point, Stanbro added.
The result of all the meetings and discussions was the definition of four major “pillars” of resiliency (see sidebar, at right), each spelled out in more specific goals and very specific action items. And in the No. 1 position is the economic pillar, titled “Remaining Rooted: Ensuring an Affordable Future for Our Island.”
PEOPLE NEED the means to stay in Hawaii to begin with, and the housing crisis exacerbates the survival challenge, he said. The first of the “Rooted” action items to make progress was defined as “Return illegal vacation rentals to local housing.” The City Council’s recent vote to pass a bill to license legal vacation rentals checked the box on that one, although that’s just the first step in creating a complex regulatory scheme.
Perhaps in a nod to their critical nature, this pillar, as well as the second, “Bouncing Forward,” include only short- to mid-term actions in their plans. The latter is subtitled, “Fostering Resilience in the Face of Natural Disasters,” and among its more pressing imperatives is the updating of building codes to take forces such as storm surge into consideration.
The third pillar is “Climate Security: Tackling Climate Change by Reducing Emissions and Adapting to Impacts.” This encompasses county actions in alignment with statewide clean-energy goals, as well as planting trees to “enhance the community forest” that keeps the city cooler and the proposed improvements to address the flooding risk in the Ala Wai Canal Watershed.
Finally, there’s “Community Cohesion: Leveraging the Strength and Leadership of Local Communities.” This one addresses empowerment — including neighbors in their local street-planning — and educational outreach and volunteerism at the grassroots level. These are various ways to keep residents connected and engaged and can be as simple as the one to “lift up positive examples of island values in action.”
THE IDEA, the mayor said, is to keep people here: A community that’s hollowed out can’t stand for long.
“Oahu has lost, according to your (news)paper, about 6,000 people in the last two years,” Caldwell said. “I think that people born and raised here can’t afford to live here. And so we’re losing a little bit of our heart and soul every time one of those people leaves.
“And the people coming in who are moving into these high-rise towers that we see are people that have a higher income and can afford to live here. And we want to be resilient for all people who live on this island.”
The heavier lift will involve a certain confrontation with monied interests; the mayor said he’s willing to give “outside the box” strategies a shot, controversial as they might be.
For instance, there is an action item aimed at reducing the number of “empty houses” by charging a special fee for investor homes that are left unoccupied much of the time.
The principle here is that the revenue supports expanded infrastructure improvements the city must make because these homes, bought for vacations or other purposes, do not house owner-occupants or their tenants on Oahu.
Stanbro said the concept is patterned after a similar fee that the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, adopted to bring more investment properties back into the housing inventory. Still, owners of higher-end second homes do already pay a premium property tax rate; this proposal likely will get pushback, he acknowledged.
BUT THE CITY plans to do some of its own pushing back, in other areas. Example: The mayor proposes to crack down on variances that have been issued to developers who want to get around a requirement for solar water heating on new homes. That’s a proposal that was floated at the last legislative session but shot down.
Further, the city administration resolves to enlarge Oahu’s islandwide 40-foot shoreline setback requirement in areas where the coast is eroding. That means short-term pain, and loud complaints, from affected property owners, but greater security for coastal development in the long run, Stanbro said.
“It’s been a 40-foot rule for 40 years,” he added. “The old rules aren’t as relevant in the new world.
“Maui and Kauai have a more flexible setback. What it should be is like they have done: science- based, a set amount plus a flex amount, depending on the conditions.
“We’re living in a changing time, with a changing environment,” Stanbro said. “Places that were just fine when everything was static are now not safe.”
Caldwell said the strategy will be incorporated in existing city review processes to keep it moving forward. After he leaves office in 2020, the mayor said, he feels confident that awareness of climate- change risks and other resiliency issues have become firmly rooted so that the strategy will survive into the next administration.
“I hope we’re not ‘selling’ anything to the people of Oahu,” he said. “As we say, the strategy comes from the people.”