Planner Profiles: Kathy Sokugawa

This planner profile article features Kathy Sokugawa. Kathy is currently the Acting Director of the City and County of Honolulu's Department of Planning and Permitting. Mahalo, Kathy, for sharing your thoughts and perspective!

Photo courtesy of Hawaii Business Magazine.


Kathy Sokugawa currently serves as the Acting Director of the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Planning & Permitting. She has held this position since 2017. Under this position she sits on the Policy Board of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit Board, and the Hawaii Community Development Authority Board. Ms. Sokugawa has over thirty years of experience in city planning with emphasis on zoning, community planning, affordable housing, and transit-oriented development. Over the years, Ms. Sokugawa has overseen Honolulu’s hosting of the annual Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials Conference. She has been an APA Hawai‘I Chapter member since her college years, and has served as the Chapter’s treasurer, newsletter editor and Executive Board member. She is currently an active participant in ULI’s UrbanPlan program that allows high school and college students to experience community development through a role-playing competition.

1. What initially drew you to planning?

As a child I drew site plans in my spare time, mostly farms.  Strange, but true. 

Then I went to architecture school, and realized while I loved spatial relationships between buildings and urban patterns, I was not good at drawing. At the same time, I wasn’t happy with a lot of emphasis on individual buildings; monuments unto themselves. And, our class was told that the job prospects for architects were very grim. So graduate school in urban planning seemed like a good idea.

2. Planning is multidisciplinary and multifaceted. How do you explain what planning is to someone outside our profession?

Planning is the ability to take information about the past and the present and cast a future through a process that is inclusive and understandable. It’s the ability to form the problem statement (not as easy as it sounds!), develop alternatives for how to solve it, and make a recommendation.

3. Has the role of local government in planning changed since you began your practice?

Yes! At the beginning of my career, Professor Kem Lowry wrote a paper about the possibility of private developments paying for off-site improvements! What a bold idea, at the time.

There’s a lot more that has changed. Long-time Deputy Director Loretta Chee often said that for every new zoning law passed, two should be dropped. Well, that rarely, if ever happens. So the world of development is getting increasingly complex, as the regulations keep growing. 

Certainly, technology (and federal grants) like GIS and remote teleconferencing have helped us get better at planning, but I am concerned about social, and environmental justice becoming abstract concepts. I wonder if remote conferencing, while it has its several advantages, can make us treat each other more like “talking heads,” and less like real individuals. Recently, a councilmember described how an urban child got to feel real grass with barefeet at the park – how is that an amazing experience? Are we getting that removed from nature and each other?

4. Planners must mediate between many stakeholders including our colleagues, our community, and individuals in positions of power. How can planners most effectively function in this role? What challenges do planners face in this role?

Planners need to be good listeners; not just remember the words said, but the values, fears and wishes behind them. They also need to maintain steadfast powers of concentration where the world around us is seemingly spiraling into shorter attention spans.  

They also need a good sense of timing – when to interject a brilliant idea or solution, and when to keep listening. Sometimes, in pursuing our passion to change the world, we forget that others could see it as imposing our will on them.

5. What advice do you have for planners starting their careers?

Soak in as much diverse experiences as you can. Along the way, you may find an area of expertise that you find especially satisfying. Even if you don’t, this accumulation of knowledge will help you in future projects and assignments. Nimbleness and flexibility are good traits that can be gained through experience.

But don’t expect planning to be a fast-paced process or judged by whether success came overnight. Planning projects tend to be like roller coasters: slow uphill phases, followed by downhill rides that feel like free fall into controversy. One needs to be patient and maintain a steadfast commitment to strive for the best possible outcomes.

Lastly, the values and ideals, especially those about “The Public Interest” as introduced in school, will be tested throughout your career. Try to retain a level of idealism and respect for what we, as planners, can do to help create better paths into a brighter future for everybody.