Hawaii Problems with Housing Density, pt. 3 of 5: Neighborliness & Multi-generational Living

model of cul de sac full of two-story homes and children playing on the sidewalks
This degree of interaction and play is an elusive, idealized goal of higher density housing. Image by John K. Thorne Photography on Flickr

This is part 3 of a five-part series on higher density housing in Hawaii. Parts two to five address Hawaii’s seven issues that discourage higher density housing and its goal of reducing cars.

Part 1 A summary of guest lecturer Allison Arieff’s presentation on pros and alternatives for housing density

Part 2: Crime and Dogs

Part 3: Neighborliness and Multi-generational Living

Part 4: Technology Interference and Homeless Park Use

Part 5: Cars for Families with Children and Elders

neighborly, adj. Appropriate to, characteristic of, or showing the feelings of a friendly neighbor. – neighborliness n.

-The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition


“Single family homes…offer a chance to meet neighbors while doing yard work, or taking an evening stroll.”

–Mark Dempsey in “Why High Density Housing Doesn’t Work (But Could)”

A neighbor who grew up across the street recently called and asked my mom to check on his mom. He’d moved to the mainland but she still lived here and hadn’t been returning his calls so he was worried. After a brief chat Mom discovered the problem was the six-hour time difference and a busy schedule. All was well.

Two things are worth noting:

  1. Our moms are long-term residents of the neighborhood on a first-name basis.
  2. Her son would not have been able to check on his mom so easily without the relationships formed from living in a neighborhood with permanent residents who spend time in their yard and walk dogs.
Neighbors interact more when they are relaxed and in safe, personal spaces, like their yard or garage. Photo by Bart Everson on Flickr

Neighbors aren’t just people who live next to each other; they wave when they drive by, they help move boulders in the yard, they ask about your family. People need to see each other and be in their relaxed, safe space (usually the yard or garage) to be comfortable enough to talk story. Some people can talk to anyone anywhere but Asian cultures tend to be more introverted at first.

Whether we talk about surfing, plants, or kids, we need to feel relaxed and unrushed. We are neither when going to and from the car or the bus stop.

Even a minor change like upgrading a chain-link fence to a nicer, plastic fence decreases communication between neighbors. When you cannot see each other you are less likely to chat.

Higher density housing, such as a three-story apartment building, increase the number of people who should be socializing but decreases their opportunities and desire to do so. Maybe only college students like to socialize in apartment building hallways and entryways.

That lady is holding the sticky hand of a small child who needs to use the bathroom, his backpack, her purse, and several bags of groceries. This grandma is clutching her purse to her chest and hurrying to her door because she fears being mugged and raped.

A lot of people coming and going in higher density developments don’t want to hang out or socialize in common areas as urban planners predict. In downtown Honolulu such spaces are graffitied, vandalized, filled with homeless tents, and used for drug-dealing, drug-using, and ne’er-do-wells gathering.

two smiling dark-haired ladies wearing white flowers in their up-swept hair, strappy tops, and kukui nut leis
Being friendly (and bringing food) is the Aloha way differentiating Hawaii from other places. Image from pxhere.com

A helping hand

We need to look out for each other, especially children and elders. One day my neighbor, a stroke survivor, fell on her stairs. Fortunately, we saw her and rushed over to help; she was shaken up but not hurt. Another time my daughter helped our other neighbor rebuild his wooden fence. She loved working with her hands to make something that would last for 10 or more years.

Over the years my Pearl City neighbors exchanged pies, meat kabobs, Trader Joe’s snacks, Spanish rolls, and fruit from our yards. They were the best!

Neighbors who help and look out for each other create a nurturing community especially important for children and elders. Hawaii’s growing numbers of kupuna need these frequent interactions for mental and physical health, delaying senility.

Higher density tends to discourage neighborly feelings and behaviors.  

“…quiet neighborhoods in small or middle sized communities where the risk of crime was low were conducive to active and satisfying lives for older people.”

– Philadelphia Geriatric Center study
Nosey Old People see everything!

NOPs, mentioned in part two of the series, are an essential neighborhood component. Nosey Old People, as dubbed by author Joe Navarro, notice everything: new haircuts, a neighbor kid’s soccer schedule, tattoos, the smiling black man who picks up litter during his twice-a-day walk, and the Egyptian necklace worn by the cheery white-haired lady who pets all the dogs. NOPs are community anchors who never leave. They call the police about a car alarm going off all night, point out when you’ve parked too close to the driveway, and shove a bag of mangoes at you before sending you on your way.

Every block should have a NOP who cares, complains, and notices. Would NOPs be appreciated and tolerated in a higher density area? Could she do her thing perched on a chair inside an apartment? A low balcony might do, but a rocking chair on a porch or watering the yard are the best places for observation and interaction. Mixed-use housing (stores on the bottom, apartments above) doesn’t have either.

Multi-generational living

We in Hawaii know, maybe better than other places, we need each other. It’s one reason we live together in multi-generational households, even if there isn’t enough space and somebody has to sleep on the couch. No shame.

The other reason is money. A twenty-something who moves out is looking at nearly $2,000 rent for a one-bedroom apartment. “Stay home and save your money,” a lot of local parents offer. If the house is big enough for a spouse and grandkids, the young couple often receives free childcare from Grandma and Grandpa and years later can look after them. If they need more elbow room, an extensive renovation to the original home (an All Kinds Drafting Services specialty) is still less costly than purchasing a separate single-family home in Hawaii.

Market forces on Oahu already encourage landowners to divide up existing single-family homes or build large multi-household structures with separate rental units in residential neighborhoods. Kapahulu is an example of a neighborhood with many single-family houses and lots subdivided to fit more living spaces.

The Hawaii real estate market is already organically creating higher density housing without giving up space for cars.

What about you?

When and where are you most comfortable talking story with your neighbors? Is there a NOP on your block? Do you live in a multi-generational or a multi-household house?

Next, Part 4: Technology Interference and Homeless Park Use

Works Cited

Lawton, M. Powell, Lucille Nahemow, and Tsong-Min-Yeh. “Neighborhood Environment and the Wellbeing of Older Tenants in Planned Housing.” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 11.3 (1980): 211-227.