In 2021,
the Ala Wai Canal turns 100.

While the dredging of the canal occurred over seven years (1921-1928), the project was left incomplete in many ways—

Pollution, flooding, food insecurity, and diaspora are a few of the consequences affecting Hawai‘i today…


VIDEO: Satellite-based isometric projection of Waikīkī according to the drainage area of the Ala Wai Canal.

Dear Reader:

ALA WAI CENTENNIAL (2021/28 to 2121/28) organizes around the idea that local people have a critical and necessary role in shaping the infrastructure of Hawai‘i, not just private developers, corporations, and public agencies. Positioned as a one-hundred year long socially engaged initiative, this worldwide exhibition on the Ala Wai Canal addresses what is urgently lacking across the stakeholders of Waikīkī: a coordinated framework for the ahupua‘a recovery of Hawai‘i’s most urbanized place.

Ahupua‘a recoverythe ecology of regaining possession of land, water, and other resources that have been lost, stolen, erased, corrupted, or even destroyed—provides a framework for an ecological approach toward achieving a culture of climate resilience. It is not a nostalgic pursuit or utopian effort. It is not about ecosystem restoration, but rather an ecological revolution. Ahupua‘a recovery names a spatial, intellectual, and responsive approach to community organizing, design, and engineering that encompasses a native resurgence to secure egalitarian, justice-advancing economies for the people of Hawai‘i and beyond. Such an approach is necessary to overcome the limitations of constrained yet available resources that exist across disparate entities coordinating various levels of public expenditure, private investment, education, and community action and activism. Every investment and expenditure—whether monetary or spiritual—is a precious resource.

For Waikīkī, ahupua‘a recovery involves healing the Ala Wai Canal. When understanding the history of the Ala Wai Canal, its construction is considered both racist in conception and technically incomplete. The wrongful dredging of the canal displaced Hawaiian and local farmers of color, after which the canal was left incomplete and without the proper tidal and flood controls typically associated with canal technologies built around the same time.

As a memorial, ALA WAI CENTENNIAL acknowledges the traumas caused by the dredging of the Ala Wai Canal while celebrating its potential for an optimistic future. As a community resource, ALA WAI CENTENNIAL offers practical, “big-picture,” long-term, and culturally rooted visions to engage and inspire excitement and confidence in completing the Ala Wai Canal toward the ahupua‘a recovery of Waikīkī. As an online exhibition, ALA WAI CENTENNIAL provides the public with a collection of three-dimensional diagrammatic maps that engage the spatial literacy and intellectual framework necessary to build consensus around the resilience of Waikīkī, and Hawai‘i, beyond.

Ahupua‘a recovery is the future of Hawai‘i’s economy in response to social justice, climate change, adaptation, and resilience. For Honolulu, this requires reparations for the construction of the Waikīkī Reclamation Project, Fort DeRussy, and the Ala Wai Canal.


Please continue onward to the next page for a deeper look at the history and future of the Ala Wai Canal. A synopsis of the essay is provided below.




The overload of pollution, poverty, and climate risk presenting in neighborhoods surrounding Waikīkī—the original tourist capital of the world—is the most obvious of metaphor conveying how imperialist citymaking affects Hawai‘i today. Yet, In 2018 every student literally by the age of eight knows that before the Ala Wai Canal was built—before tourism—Hawai‘i once flowed clean with wealth streaming through abundant forests, taro patches, and fishponds. Because young people today are aware of this history that is resurgent around Hawai‘i today, most students within their lifetimes believe the Ala Wai Canal can be fixed even though it's complicated. As a real place through which the image and economy of Hawai‘i flows, remaking the economy of Waikīkī presents an important opportunity to craft an island-based future. One particular future begins with completing the Ala Wai Canal.

The construction of the Ala Wai Canal that began in 1921 was an outcome of the racist ideology of that time, which still prevails all too strongly today. Just a few decades following the overthrow and annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom (an action investigated, contested, and approved under the political jurisdiction of former generals and soldiers of the Confederacy, the result of which included the suppression of Hawaiian language), did the Ala Wai Canal drain the celebrated and pristine grounds of Hawaiian leaders and their peoples. Proposed, yet only partially implemented, by Lucius E. Pinkham—a racist appointed as governor by President Woodrow Wilson, who is also a noted racist and Confederate sympathizer—the canal has white supremacy institutionally embedded in its very origins. The Ala Wai Canal was constructed by the Territorial Government of Hawai'i led by a governor appointed by the President of the United States and is an outcome of military rule, not democracy.


Occupying a portion of the greater ahupua‘a of Waikīkī, the Ala Wai Canal is an artificial waterway servicing three major streams and a remnant ‘auwai (irrigation ditch) in the neighborhoods of Makiki, Mānoa, Pālolo, Kaimukī, Kapahulu, McCully-Mō‘ili’ili, and Waikīkī. The area is home to around 300,000 residents, and hosts some 5.6 million tourists annually. Facing increased flood risks, poverty, and environmental degradation make the Ala Wai Canal one of Hawai‘i’s most critical urban challenges. 

1. Incomplete and Obsolete Infrastructure at Capacity

The artificial hydrology of the Ala Wai Canal encompasses a watershed approximately 11,000 acres in size. The canal comprises an infrastructural network of channelized streams, dredged waterways, and underground stormwater drains connecting every roof, street, and paved surface in the area with the sea. The absence of environmental systems to filter and minimize stormwater entering and exiting the canal combined with the inability to accommodate a range of flood events make the canal obsolete in its function to secure public health and safety.

2. Pollution and Environmental Degradation

The Ala Wai Canal transmits catastrophic levels of pollution from surrounding urban areas into the sea. This pollution includes, but is not limited to urban runoff (effluents), sewage (feces and urine), silt (discharged sedimentation), filth (blood and fluids), poisons (chemicals), and other junk (debris). Point sources for pollution include the impervious surfaces (buildings, streets, pavements) that cover approximately 87% of the urban area the Ala Wai Canal drains. In addition to decreasing the natural capacity for land to absorb rainfall, impervious surfaces cover 63% of the fertile soil available in the Ala Wai watershed. The development of once prime agricultural lands and degradation of fertile soil threatens the resilience of Hawai‘i food systems and cultural relationships between people and land. Following flood events, pollution within the canal transmitted across the flood area will prolong the recovery time and increase expenditures toward clean-up.

3. Catastrophic Risks and Climate Change

Compounding the risks of pollution—among many catastrophic events, flood risks range in intensity and can be categorized according to a variety of events. These include but are not limited to flooding by (1) the increased flow of stormwater entering the canal from inland; (2) surges from the sea during hurricanes, tropical storms, and king tides; (3) increased inundation following sea level rise; (4) tsunami. Climate change increases the probability and duration of flood risks caused by changes to local weather patterns such as increased rainfall during wet seasons; increased chance of hurricanes and storms caused by changes to regional weather cycles like the North Pacific High; rising sea levels and tides; and the possible increase earthquakes related to global shifts caused by climate change.

4. Inequality and Disparity

Risks and catastrophe, like massive recurring flood events, pose immense financial losses that range from hundreds of millions of dollars into the billions. While the economic stability of business and hotels are often the focus of politically led initiatives to fund climate change initiatives, among the most overlooked and marginalized factors in this discussion is often overlooked: the impact of climate change for people living in poverty. While annual visitor spending in Hawai‘i at 16.8 billion dollars (2017) represents 22% of the State’s gross domestic product, Hawai‘i residents get very little back. A microcosm of the way the corporate tourism industry treats Hawai‘i reveals itself in the surrounding city itself. Aforementioned pollution issues aside, residents living closest to Waikiki have a higher chance of claiming poverty than anywhere else in the Ala Wai watershed, in addition to living in areas where the risk for environmental catastrophe is the highest.

5. Single-Use Land Use and Resource Insecurity

For the Ala Wai Watershed, 55% of land is zoned for urban development without setbacks from streams, while 44% of the land area is zoned for conservation with only the remaining 1% zoned for agriculture. Market failures occur where there exists an inability for landowners to adequately protect streams and manage stormwater runoff as part of the mountain and ocean ecosystem.


Acknowledging the impossible task of completely relocating the half-a-million people that will be directly impacted by probably sea level rise across O‘ahu alone, the function and effectiveness of city infrastructure are crucial to the future of Hawai‘i, and it’s people, culture, economy, and environment. As such, efforts to address the complex issues of the Ala Wai Canal should involve more than just flood control and beautification; it should concern Hawaiian knowledge, island values, and community needs in ways that reconfigure city infrastructures to physically approach the inefficiencies and injustices of Hawai‘i’s food, education, and economic systems in a move toward self-reliance and resiliency. An ahupua‘a future for the Ala Wai Canal presents an immense opportunity to reclaim a place like Waikīkī for the people of Hawai‘i and beyond.

1. The Ahupua‘a as Living Academy

Encompassing all subjects and aspects of education, each ahupua‘a provides a living academy within which every school in Hawai‘i is located. In the ahupua‘a of Waikīkī, every school is within a 10-minute walk (0.25 mile) from a stream. The existing proximities between schools and streams present strategic and innovative opportunities to create an immersive place-based curriculum that combines knowledge with the lived experiences of students and their teachers. An ahupua‘a-based education system becomes a pathway to critical thinking, self-worth, and responsibility rooted in island values. Schools are therefore ground zero for the recovery of ahupua‘a toward local resilience across Hawai‘i. In Waikīkī, excellent examples of action toward such recovery include, to name a few, watershed-based arts and science curriculums implemented at SEEQS and ‘Iolani School’s Na Wai Ekolu program (to name just a few).

2. Restored Public Health and Safety

Public health and safety mean clean streams and ocean (public health) and flood control and climate change resilience (public safety). Stormwater reduction, filtration, and control are crucial to mitigate pollution and flood risks, and represent tactical strategies to restore and perpetuate public health and safety. Because of the immense regional scale at which flooding and pollution occur, a combination of tactics from stream retrofits to vegetative swales to seasonal flood parks are needed. Stream retrofits, for example, include updating stream channels with newer technologies such as low-flow channels, vegetative buffers, and integrated retention ponds that slow, absorb, and filter stormwater eventually reaching the ocean via the Ala Wai Canal. Stream retrofits should not be mistaken for ecological restoration, as the appropriate design, engineering, and construction of urbanized streams are the primary element of any legitimate flood control system. Additional installations of vegetative swales at the entry of stormwater drains coupled with seasonal flood parks (detention basins) can help to ensure a clean and certain approach to flood control and management.

3. Climate Adaptation and Resilience

For cities around the world, canals are typically equipped with tidal controls that lower and maintain constant water levels where flooding or storm surge may threaten life and commerce. The Ala Wai Canal originally called for such technologies. However, these were never completed… The first tactical step toward completing the Ala Wai Canal involves the installation of tidal controls where the canal meets the sea (potentially named “Kālia Dam”). These include the construction of a dam equipped with active and passive pump system coupled with upland stream sensors, emergency overflow release mechanisms, canoe locks, fish passes, and stream-wide sediment/debris catchments. The implementation of “Kālia Dam” would afford the ability to lower and maintain the water level of the canal to accommodate increase water volumes during storm events, while also addressing sea level rise.

4. Advanced Island Urbanism with Reciprocity

The varied concepts of kīpuka and kauhale provide tremendous insights for the future of land use and citymaking. Kīpuka, which names the area of a forest spared by lava flow, is a metaphor of the next generation that follows what is left behind. Kauhale, which names a place where people live both as a family and many families, demonstrates a system of managing resources for sustenance. Replacing notions of “conservation” with the expanding ideas of what kīpuka will mean for the people of Hawai‘i in the future, in addition to reconsidering the divisions between “urban” and “agriculture” in favor of the more effective kauhale system, are all formative steps in the process of ahupua‘a recovery.

5. Ecological Revolution for Honolulu, and Beyond

Initiatives relating to the Ala Wai Watershed are not end goals, but part of a larger effort that relates to the broader context of Honolulu, and Hawai‘i beyond. If done properly, the completion of the Ala Wai Canal can help to create new legal and design precedents for future generations to expand from. Completing the Ala Wai Canal will begin the necessary discourse to conceptualize the systems of large-scale infrastructural changes the coming generations are bound to face.

“Do not swim or wade
in any freshwater streams
or ponds in Hawai‘i”

“Leptospirosis.” State of Hawai‘i Department of Health,
Disease Outbreak Control Division. (2018)

Slideshow: Makiki Stream.
Animation by the Artist.

In 2006, 48 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Ala Wai Canal
during a catastrophic flood event. The ocean was polluted for many months.
Waikiki Beach closed due to the rise of staph infections in beach goers,
while the canal itself harbored several strains of flesh-eating bacteria
that caused the death of an injured man who fell in.


ALA WAI CENTENNIAL has been demonstrated to over 1200 students across public and private schools in Honolulu through a prototype 3D visual presentation called the AHUPUA'A HOLODECK made possible through the support of the Honolulu Biennial Foundation, Taiki and Naoko Terasaki Family Foundation, The Sullivan Center at ‘Iolani Schools, and the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability (SEEQS). Additional presentation of ALA WAI CENTENNIAL include stakeholder presentations for groups at UH Manoa School of Architecture, Hawaii State Legislature, UH West Oahu, NOAA, City and County of Honolulu, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. This project represents $500,000 in design and planning services provided for the benefit of the community for free.

Love the Ala Wai Canal.