Planning May 2019

Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan

Honoring Identity, Cultural Heritage

Kaua'i County General Plan, Kaua'i Kākou | County of Kaua'i, Hawaii

County officials and community members join hands after then-Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho (in long-sleeved blue shirt) signed the plan into law. Photo courtesy Kaua'i County.

County officials and community members join hands after then-Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho (in long-sleeved blue shirt) signed the plan into law. Photo courtesy Kaua'i County.

By Ilima Loomis

Native Hawaiians of old took a thoughtful approach to land-use management.

They divided each island into ahupua'a, wedge-shaped slices of land extending from the mountains to the sea so that each community would have all the resources it needed to thrive, including access to a watershed, forests, lowlands, and coastline. Each community was responsible for maintaining and preserving those resources for future generations.

Planning, preservation, and sense of place — "that's a very Hawaiian idea," says Mason Chock, chair of the Planning Committee for the Kaua'i County Council and a Native Hawaiian. This ancient lesson in sustainability was a driving force behind the 2018 update of Kaua'i County's general plan, this year's recipient of APA's Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan.

Kākou (we, ours, promotes synergy when developing solutions and alternatives)

Lōkahi (collaboration or teamwork, unity, agreement)

Mālama 'Āina (caring for the land) Mana'o (thought or belief)

Kuleana (right, privilege, concern, responsibility)

"It was really important to us to at least acknowledge, and if at all possible to draw on, the fact that ancient Hawaiians were able to manage the land," says Marie Williams, AICP, Kaua'i County's community planning program manager, who oversaw the planning process. "We wanted to recognize that this concept of being sustainable is not something new; it's rooted in the history of Hawaii."

Ancient heritage

Kaua'i is Hawaii's smallest county, with a population of around 70,000, plus around 25,000 daily visitors. The county encompasses the 562-square-mile island of Kaua'i, along with the privately owned island of Ni'ihau, and the outlying islands Lehua and Ka'ula, which are uninhabited.

Many of the challenges the county faces are typical among coastal communities: sea-level rise, housing shortages, traffic congestion, and tourism (which many locals feel has grown beyond the island's carrying capacity). The county's updated plan, titled Kaua'i Kākou — which refers to the concept of moving forward together — seeks to address these issues, but at the request of the community, it also goes above and beyond to preserve and honor native culture.

Chock, who oversaw the review and approval process for the plan, notes that Hawaiian culture recognizes a concept of wahi pana, or "sacred place" — sites that can have religious or spiritual significance or are tied to history, cultural practices, or shared stories. "These are places that help to identify and define who we are," he says.

The general plan prioritizes the protection of these sites. One such area is Mahaulepu, a privately held site on the island's south shore that contains numerous burial sites, the remains of a heiau (temple), and archaeological sites. The general plan also instructs county officials to continue to identify more wahi pana as part of future community planning processes and determine how those sites should be managed.

Planners consulted local experts and cultural practitioners to write the Heritage Resources part of the plan, including guidelines for protecting wahi pana, raising awareness of historic place names, perpetuating traditional practices, and protecting kuleana lands, to which descendants of Native Hawaiian families may have rights.

"This topic was probably the most difficult to write, because when you're talking about history and culture, it means so many things to different people," Williams says. "It was important to make sure we got this right."

Kaua‘i residents take part in a Community Visioning Charrette, one of many held across the island.

Kaua'i residents take part in a Community Visioning Charrette, one of many held across the island.

Value-based planning

Culture and heritage played a huge role in the planning process. To ensure the plan accurately reflected community needs, planners formed a citizens' advisory committee that represented the diversity of the islands' cultures, and dedicated a Hawaiian cultural seat to ensure representation of native voices. Technical reports were also translated into the Hawaiian language to encourage participation; translation of the completed plan is currently under way.

Thousands of residents provided input at public meetings, coffee hours, pop-up tents, and visioning workshops, as well as in surveys and on social media. Planners organized a youth participation program involving elementary through college students, and the plan's Future Land Use Map was crafted with intensive public charrettes. Hundreds of residents testified on the plan at the county council level.

Growth was a huge concern for residents, Williams says. The county is suffering from a significant shortage of housing for locals. Residents are also concerned about overdevelopment and the loss of open space, and worry that already overburdened roads and infrastructure may not accommodate additional growth.

"How we plan for tourism came up in a big way," Williams says. "Many people only participated in the process because they're so frustrated with the number of visitors coming to Kaua'i, and they're concerned that any new development would actually end up not serving a local market."

For the first time, the general plan does not encourage further resort development but instead calls on public officials to consider residents' quality of life and visitors' experiences before supporting more tourism growth. It also introduces the concept of a carrying capacity for the island; at the direction of the plan, county officials are now working with researchers at the University of Hawaii to determine population capacities of the county's resort areas.

Planners also prioritized public health and well-being, looking at how land use was tied to things like access to public parks, bike paths, and even grocery stores with healthy food. While Hawaii is consistently ranked as one of the healthiest states in the country, disadvantaged groups, including Native Hawaiians, face more health challenges. Native Hawaiians are significantly more likely to be obese than the general population (38.7 percent versus 22.1 percent) and have higher rates of diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.

Ultimately, Chock says, the process has brought the Kaua'i community together. "I credit the planning department with understanding that a plan is only as good as its ability to tell a story, to connect with people, and to guide people," he says.

Kaua'i County General Plan, Kaua'i Kākou

LOCATION: County of Kaua'i, Hawaii

GOAL: Update the island's main land-use planning document to address community frustration with negative impacts of tourism, traffic, and housing costs on locals' quality of life.

IMPACT: The updated plan and planning process used extensive community input as well as traditional Hawaiian and modern-day land-use knowledge to guide future growth around community-identified goals of sustainability, resilience, equity, culture, and heritage.

JURY COMMENTS: This ambitious plan goes above and beyond traditional planning practice to foster cultural heritage, inclusivity, and participation of Native populations, as well as address sea-level rise, public health, and community resilience.


Learn more about this award and watch the video.

Ilima Loomis is a freelance writer based in Haiku, Maui. Find her work at