Images by Olivier Koning

Embedded in those ubiquitous green bumper stickers—“KEEP THE COUNTRY COUNTRY”—is a sense of loss. The unnamed threat—development—has as its most tangible manifestation the sprawling, manic hive that is Honolulu, all ugly high-rises, and never-ending traffic jams. Like a monster, the city gobbles up land until it is gone. The charge is to keep the monster at bay, before it devours the entire island.

As a general framework for O‘ahu, there is wisdom in reining in sprawl. Preserving undeveloped areas, such as the Ka Iwi coast—182 acres of which were purchased just this month by a hui of agencies to prevent against further development—is an important way to safeguard the island’s future. But some Native Hawaiians resist the notion that the city is “lost,” or that traditional Hawaiian knowledge should be relegated to only parts of the islands.

“Decolonization is the practice of interacting in a city as an indigenous space first, and forever,” says Hokulani Aikau, an associate professor of Native Hawaiian and indigenous politics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa “[A city] doesn’t stop being indigenous just because it has a skyscraper with Trump’s name on it.”

Aikau is a co-organizer of the Decolonizing Cities Symposium, which takes place Friday, May 5, and brings together both indigenous and non-indigenous scholars, activists, and practitioners for panel discussions, as well as a Speculative Futures workshop with poet Aiko Yamashiro and artist Sean Connelly. It is one of two upcoming events—both free and open to the public—that focus explicitly on Hawai‘i’s built environment.

The Building Voices Festival, sponsored by UH’s School of Architecture, will be held this Saturday, April 22, at the Hawai‘i State Capitol. Internationally renowned designers, including Susannah Drake of Brooklyn-based dlandstudio, will join local leaders in discussing how design can help tackle immediate challenges like housing affordability, as well as less tangible—but no less serious—threats such as climate change.

Designed by Oregon-based architect Erin Moore, Outside House, a series of two minimalist pavilions on Maui, won the of the Building Voices design competition.

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The event includes a one-day symposium organized around five key issues—ecological resilience, resource independence, healthy citizens, community mobility, and housing for all—which emerged out of listening sessions with students, faculty, and community members. There was also an international design competition that called for entries around creating innovative solutions for designing much of Hawai‘i’s built environment, including buildings, transportation, and infrastructure, among other things. (Competition entries were judged according to their impact on indigenous culture, and the symposium also includes a session on decolonization.)

Cathi Ho Schar, the director of the architecture school’s HIDESIGN Studio, says she hopes the event demonstrates the role that design plays in people’s daily lives—and in shaping Hawai‘i’s future. “People might not know how an architect deals with ecological resilience or resource independence,” Ho Schar says. “They don’t know that when we’re designing a dwelling that we might also be thinking about how to use a local material or a local labor technique so that we’re not importing material or requiring additional expertise that we don’t have here.”

The winners of the design competition, which were announced this week, will also be on display. The winning entry, awarded $5,000, was Outside House by Oregon-based architect Erin Moore, a series of two minimalist pavilions recently constructed in Maui. Sitting lightly on the land, the project is envisioned as a prototype for sustainable island living.

Both events hope to inspire an inclusive and energetic dialogue about Hawai‘i’s built environment, as well as actionable steps toward healthier, more equitable communities. Konia Freitas, a faculty member at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, acknowledges that some of the conversations may be uncomfortable but that they are nevertheless vital. “We should not expect status quo,” she says, “and we should not expect to feel comfortable.”