Crudely defined, there are three types of development patterns on Oahu: City, Country and the Suburbs in between.
Our three films, in essence, deal with each of those habitats.
In two of the films that reality is reflected in their titles – though that was mere serendipity, we didn’t consciously choose the names for that reason.
Forever Country, about the fight over the rural character of the North Shore and Windward Side, is about the country.
The Third City, about the fight over the urban character of Kaka‘ako, is about the city.
And Railroading Paradise is, quintessentially, about whether a rail system can change Oahu’s development pattern away from the suburban sprawl that has predominated over the last 50 years.
The three films are three sides of a triangular discussion, they are all connected and the two sequels grew out of the arguments set up in Railroading Paradise.
Because, if you accept the rationale for the train that ultimately underlay the decision by the Sierra Club to support it, then you are essentially saying that you do not want any more suburbs on this island. Indeed that premise underlies the entire trilogy.
Suburbs have swallowed more than 50 percent of our best farmland since statehood in 1959 and the commute from suburban bedroom communities into the city has given us the most congested freeways in the nation. Suburbs place enormous demands on infrastructure as they force us to build and maintain roads, power, water and sewer lines to ever more distant places instead of focusing our resources in the city. And suburbs create a lifestyle that leads to social atomization. No one walks to the corner store, or the local eatery or the movies in a suburb. Everyone drives to work, to shop, to play in their cars. This prevents social interaction on the street, it eliminates making chance encounters, it stops us from having the street as a shared experience and living in a communal space. And once you lose the ability to drive as a senior, you become trapped in your suburban home. That is the premise behind Railroading Paradise.
Mike and Anthony also subscribe to the popular consensus that Oahu must retain the rural character of the northern and eastern half of the island or, as the most popular political slogan in Hawai‘i over the last 30 years puts it: Keep the Country, Country. That’s not to say that the country has to be frozen in aspic, condemned to being a kind of living postcard, a pretty place that depends on tourism and where the inhabitants end up being almost like the inhabitants of a zoo – creatures to be stared at by transient passers-by. The Country has to have its own economic rationale, first and foremost as an agricultural economy. Some economic growth, some housing growth has to be accommodated – desired even. But how to do it sensitively, without destroying what makes each rural community unique is a conundrum. That is the premise behind Forever Country.
If you subscribe to those two simple, not to say simplistic, ideas: that suburbs are bad and the country is good, then that has to inform and shape your thinking about the city. There are those who fear that Honolulu will turn into Singapore, or a Pacific Manhattan. They want Honolulu to retain a small-town, beach-going, laid-back flavor. They do not want a city of high-rises, even though, in many ways, that horse bolted the stable more than three decades ago. But if we are to stop any more suburban growth and if we are to keep the country rural, then the city has to become taller and denser, there is no other way.
And if the city is to become denser, you have to have an efficient transportation system to move people around. Automobile traffic is beyond saturation point.
In adopting that argument, the Sierra Club has stated that by “taller” it means buildings in the three to eight story range, not 40 or 50 or 60 story behemoths. They note that in the most beautiful cities in the world -places like Paris and Rome, Kyoto and Buenos Aires- that is the height range that tends to predominate. So does Kaka‘ako have to become a sea of skyscrapers?
The Sierra Club also subscribes to the view that Honolulu has to be reinvented, that old neighborhoods have to be transformed and revitalized to become communities with attractive urban cores where people can stroll or bike to stores and leisure activities and use the street as a kind of public living room. That’s why they’ve adopted the unorthodox idea that environmentalists have to focus as much attention on caring for the city as for the natural environment: if you want to keep the country country, you have to make the city more city.
These are a complex and intertwined set of arguments. There was no way we could have addressed them -and looked at the urban and rural habitats- in depth, in one hour-long documentary. Hence the trilogy: The Future of Paradise.