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Is Hawaii America’s most tropical garden state?

The answer is that it could be and it should be. The International Palm Society meeting last month gave participants a chance to see the “Garden City” of Singapore and compare it to Honolulu and the Neighbor Islands. Hawaii is blessed with spectacular natural beauty, a great climate, a multi cultural mix of people and most of all, Hawaiian foundation of Aloha. However, have we taken the opportunity to use landscaping to fully minimize the negative impacts of high rises and highways?

It has been more than 30 years since I have had an opportunity to spend time in Singapore. It has the unfortunate and unfair reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in the world. However, you can do it on a shoestring if you know where to stay and go. Last time I visited, I was not impressed. It was suffering some of the growing pains Hawaii was experiencing in the ’60s and ‘70s. It seemed it was in the throws of construction and destruction. Singapore’s history in the 19th and first half of the 20th century was one of political/social anarchy and upheaval until the end of the World War II. From then to now, it has evolved from a dusty, developing nation into one of the world’s most stable, safe and prosperous countries. It is also possibly the best example of how to make a city/nation of 6 million people one of the most beautiful in the world.

By the way, Singapore is a city and also a country. The main island is smaller than Oahu but the country includes around 50 small islands. It is just a short distance from the tip of Peninsular Malaysia. The most impressive thing about Singapore is that the landscaping is so well done that you feel like you are in a forest garden. The 10 kilometer drive from Changi Airport to the downtown is lush with shade trees, palms and flowering shrubs. The Singapore Botanical Gardens and Garden By The Bay are overwhelmingly beautiful. The latter is about two hundred 50 acres of tropical gardens recently created at the cost of one billion dollars. Both are free and open to the public.

In a nutshell, Singapore has set a great example for cities of the future.

It would be worthwhile for our elected public officials, planners and developers to visit and bring home some new ideas on how we can guide our future.

Folks all over the islands are complaining about the hot summer temperatures. And sure enough, temperatures in Honolulu as well as Kona have been higher than what seems normal. When temperatures are reported to be around 90 degrees or more, it feels pretty hot, but if you happen to be in the sun on a shopping center parking lot, it can be well over 100 degrees.

In West Hawaii, where we really need trees for shade and beauty, trees are being cut down in some of our major hotels, roads and shopping center parking lots. Of course, the excuse is always that it is to reduce maintenance, for safety, or the trees are too big. What it boils down to is that these shopping centers were given building permits based in part that they were including attractive landscaping. The community supported the developers plans based on the inclusion of sufficient landscaping. When landscaping is removed or not properly maintained, it is a break of trust. Highway maintenance is another issue. The opportunity to have a really beautiful entrance from our Kona airport to Kailua is ignored with excuses of cost and upkeep. We are a visitor destination that counts on a beautiful environment.

Over the last several years, well landscaped areas along Alii Drive, Henry Street and Palani Road have gradually deteriorated with several hundred palms cut down. It has happened so gradually that most folks don’t notice. These beautiful trees get cut down because they take maintenance or might become a safety issue. There are ways to mitigate the concerns for safety and maintenance if we are willing to explore them. The absolute last resort is to destroy the trees. Unfortunately, one of the great community guardian organizations in Kona, Hilo and Puna, The Outdoor Circle, has lost it support and momentum since the beginning of the Great Recession. At one time, developers and politicians went to these community service groups before any plans were considered. The Outdoor Circle statewide has been instrumental in keeping our islands “Clean, Green and Beautiful.” Thank goodness the Waikoloa Outdoor Circle is still active in these endeavors. What we need around the rest of the island is a rebirth of the local Outdoor Circles.

Over thousands of years human cultures have had an impact on the planet. Some have fought to subjugate the natural order and some have worked within the ecological system. The cultures that seem to have lasted the longest are those that have been in tune with the environment. All this changed within the last few hundred years as our human populations expanded and began to impact one another through territorial wars, colonization and thinking that land or the “aina,” as Hawaiians knew it, was just another commodity to be bought and sold for profit.

During the past 50 years, a new awareness of our relationship with our world has been building. Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring brought environmental concerns to the general public in America. Since then, all kinds of organizations like Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Audubon have expanded and become mainstream.

This same environmental awareness has made a tremendous impact on the agricultural industry. The landscape portion is particularly concerned since it is extremely visible to the typical urban and suburban dweller. Also, we should recognize that landscape installation and maintenance creates jobs.

Even if you are not commercially involved in landscaping, here are some things all of us should know about landscape gardening in a way that is friendly to the other creatures both animal and plant that share the space around us. The concepts of conservation and sustainable gardening in urbanized areas are based on these as well as other principles. These could be encompassed in the theme “as nature would have it”.

Some simple rules to remember are: first to design a landscape using the proper plants in the right place. Massing plant materials to discourage unwanted weeds or pioneer species is one approach. Using materials that are adapted to the location so as not to require lots of extra water, fertilizer, pesticides, pruning and other expensive resource consuming inputs is another. Native plants may be considered where appropriate, but non native or multicultural heritage plants are most commonly used since most of these have been tried and tested in many environments and have proved readily adaptable. Multicultural heritage plants are those that each culture has brought to Hawaii since humans first set foot on our shores. Coconut, Kukui, Noni and breadfruit, for example, are examples of Polynesian heritage plants. Jackfruit and moringa would be plants representing our Filipino culture. Second rule is to use what special resources already available on the land. The value of existing trees, land contours and rock formations should be considered. Remember, it is important that we learn to appreciate nature by practicing wise management of all our resources. Of course, good maintenance practices are important as well. Landscaping is an important element in creating a more enjoyable and healthy life whether we live in small towns or gigantic cities.

Singapore has set an example that millions of people can live together surrounded by clean, green and beautiful gardens offering peace and tranquility in a crowded and otherwise hectic world.

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