Let me say, first of all, that Hilo, Hawaii, is my kind of town. It’s laidback and funky, with a cozy little downtown full of great neighborhood restaurants and shops and a first-rate farmers market. Its best stretches of oceanfront are public property. Hilo seems comfortable with its rough edges, and it oozes history. Its native Hawaiian and surfer-dude and Japanese and hippie influences coexist easily, creating an unpretentious, welcoming, slightly down-at-heel vibe all its own.

When I travel, I’m looking for places like downtown Hilo — lived-in, well-loved urban spaces where there’s no barrier between the visitor and the local. There are lots of great places to visit, magnificently appointed tourist enclaves in stunning settings that are a delight to play in -- see, for example, the mountain town of Banff, just up the road from my abode here in Calgary — but Hilo’s the kind of place I could imagine living in within a couple days of arriving there.

I’m going on some about how charming Hilo is because I’m about to use it as the poster child for some of the worst sins in modern urban design. In particular, its downtown provides a holiday postcard version of the widespread practice of divorcing an urban space from its proximate natural environment.

In this case, we're talking about the catastrophic separation of downtown Hilo from the inviting blue waves and sea breezes of Hilo Bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond. You’ll find the same sort of problems in many cities: in Boston, for example, where billions have been spent trying to reintroduce the city to the sea; and in Toronto, where decades of City Hall finangling have been unable to bridge the gap between city and lakefront created by six lanes of expressway. In Hilo, though, perhaps because it’s such a small place and so close to such awesome natural assets, the problem appears in high relief.

Let’s take a look, as if we’ve just arrived there.

Let’s say we start on a Wednesday or Saturday morning, finding a parking spot on a back street to explore Hilo’s fascinating farmers market and the lively old historic district beyond. (It’s too much to ask, for now, that there might be some form of transport other than a motor vehicle to bring us downtown.)

The scene is initially promising:

The market is a destination in itself — a delightful little bazaar where you can find top-notch handicrafts, great coffee, lilokoi lemonade, homemade cheeses and the curious local spam concoction known as musubi, as well as a wide range of locally grown vegetables and some of the best avocados and fresh fruit on the face of the Earth. Even better, though, the market is right on the edge of the downtown core, seamlessly integrated with the historic arcaded streetscape beyond. This is an exemplary urban space. If I’d just arrived — whether by car or on one of the mammoth cruise ships that sometimes docks at the port of Hilo — I’d be ready for a fine day’s exploration of an atmospheric old town.

Hilo appears, on the surface, to be aware of its charms. There’s the obligatory “Welcome To” sign, for example, the kind of thing every town worth its dimishing local tax base put up back in the ‘70s as old resource economies (in Hilo’s case, the one built mostly on sugarcane) declined and local business elites discovered the value of tourism:

And clearly Hilo’s taxpayers have recognized more recently the need to make their case more emphatically, because the elegant ring of palm trees separating downtown from the oceanfront now shares space with a series of banners advertising Hilo’s virtues.

No banner, though, is ever going to be as good an advertisement for the place as this is:

If you are a visitor to a place like Hilo, particularly if you are arriving from somewhere where the water is never that kind of inviting blue and palm trees grow only in pots in greenhouses, you want to be near this scene. You want to dive into it, immerse yourself in it. You’ve had your fill of the farmers market and the nifty downtown shops, and you want to stroll by the sea or sit on a patio sipping a cold local beer (Mehana is as good a local microbrew as you’ll find anywhere). You want salt mist on your face, a breeze flapping the collar of your shirt, maybe a taste of the excellent local seafood as you gaze across the bay and wonder why anyone ever bothered to settle in the climate that holds sway on the landlocked prairie north of the 50th parallel when there were Hawaiian islands out there. (Sorry — just veered from the generic editorial you to the specific me there, but you catch my drift, I’m sure.)

Here’s where Hilo’s troubles begin — and they are formidible. Take just a single step beyond the “Welcome to Downtown Hilo” sign, for example, and this is the scene that greets you:

Here we are, three blocks from the farmers market and less than two from a couple of very good cafes. Look closely. Not only are there three lanes of fast-moving bypass traffic between you and the sea, there’s no pedestrian infrastructure whatsoever. No sidewalk, no crosswalk, no lights or signs to guide your way. Every effort has been made to tell you to stay away from the waterfront.

It gets worse if you’re foolhardy enough to cross those turn lanes in order to reach the palm-lined median on the other side.

To the far right in this picture, you can just barely see the inviting facades of downtown Hilo’s shops and restaurants. There is then a broad parking lot, two lanes of local traffic, some deocrative palm trees, a chainlink fence (!) and four lanes of highway traffic. And then far to the left (not pictured), there is Hilo Bay.

This is, in short, a broad, perilous wall of lousy car-centric infrastructure, telling the denizens of downtown Hilo and their guests that they are not, contrary to what they may have thought at first, situated in a welcoming tropical town in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They are stuck in an indifferent highway rest stop between much more valuable destinations north and south of downtown Hilo, where the only view out the café window is of parked cars and chainlink. All the banners and palm trees the town’s dwindling tax base can buy will not change this message. The only thing that might is a wrecking crew. (Start with the chainlink; there is nothing that quite says DANGER ZONE – NO TRESSPASSING like a chainlink fence.)

In Hilo — as in many cities — there is a wide, enticing urban plaza already half-built. And on either side of it, there is great space for people. There are just too many cars using it right now.

To imagine better cities 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

All photos by Chris Turner.

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