Planner Profiles: Cheryl Soon

Planner Profiles is a new article in the APA Hawai‘i Newsletter that features individuals who have influenced planning in Hawaii. Through this feature, planners are asked to share their experiences and perspective on planning in our state. Our first profile is on Cheryl Soon. Mahalo, Cheryl, for your time and thoughtful answers!


Cheryl Soon received a Masters Degree in City Planning from Harvard University and a PHD in Planning from University of Hawai‘i. She has worked in planning for over forty years in both the public and private sectors. In the public sector she was Executive Director of the OahuMPO, Deputy Director of the State Department of Transportation, and director of both the Planning Department and Department of Transportation Services for the City & County of Honolulu.

For the past ten years, Cheryl has worked with the professionals at SSFM International in their Strategic Services Group. She has received many honors and awards, including being inducted in 2005 as a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners. She was a member of the Honolulu Charter Review Commission in 2012-14 and is currently Chair of the Honolulu Rate Commission.

1.  What drew you to Planning?

Public sector service always appealed to me, but I never wanted to be an elected official. I loved the interaction with the community, hearing about their experiences and needs, and seeing how analytical tools and policy could be of benefit.

In undergraduate school, I was a government major and wasn’t sure if I was more interested in the international, national, state or local level. College internships with an urban renewal authority and a public housing agency confirmed my interest in cities. I did a year of night architecture school but was uninspired. I realized it was spatial and social relationship on the street by people that was exciting for me, less so creation of the buildings. So that pushed me to planning school. There were only two in the place I lived, Harvard and MIT. I chose Harvard, loved the education there, and never looked back after that.

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

Good question. My mother used to complain that she wished I was in a profession she could more easily explain to inquiring neighbors (her version of what we would today call an elevator speech). Here is what I told her:

Planners are interested in how to make the future better, whether it be physical surroundings, health care, housing, the environment, or a wide range of topics. We are trained to utilize a process of problem identification, setting goals, conducting analytical review of options, comparisons and impacts, and making recommendations. We seek out input and feedback from many sources, most importantly the community being affected. We must learn to write plans that help others make financial and policy decision with the best knowledge possible for what might occur if the recommendations are taken or if they are not. This can be complex, but it is fascinating and fun to do.

3.  How has the role of a planner in Hawai‘i changed since you began your practice?

First, the 1970’s was towards the tail end of the “rational planning” period when there was lots of money for data, research and analysis. Today, less so. There is more interest in coming to solutions fast and little patience for the analytical process.

Second, the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP) was focused on “advocacy planning” which put emphasis on community outreach and input. Now people are used to speaking up for themselves, usually in a public hearing setting or letters to the editor. The sophistication of outreach techniques has changed a lot due to social media. Very few people will sit on an advisory committee or attend a public meeting. The planner’s continual challenge is to determine, how do we gather input?

Third, the definition of planning has widened. In the 1970’s the focus was on comprehensive plans to support land use and infrastructure decisions. Now, these are just one of many types of planning. The demise of federal funding under President Reagan came early in my career and it dramatically changed planning as we now know it.

4.  What role does planning play in addressing contemporary issues in Hawai‘i (i.e. food security, climate change)?

I think planners are naturally critical thinkers and thought leaders. This puts them at the center of civic life. Food security and the climate are certainly threshold issues. But I believe the most pressing problem we face in Hawai‘i is the unacceptable rates of homelessness and those living on the edge of the economy who can so easily drop off that edge. Since statehood, we have seen major changes in the agriculture sector (from monocrop to diversified), in the skills and training needed to work in all sectors, in the use of computers and technology in general, aon and on. As planners we need to connect the issues of economy and jobs with housing, transportation, education, and health care to achieve the social compact we want.

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

You must remain as curious and thirsty for new knowledge as you were in school. You need to find areas where you have passion, and find how your passion connects with other areas important to society. You must make sure your speaking and writing skills match your position, always improving both of these. Communication is key.

If you are afraid of doing something, that is what you should move towards, as that is where you will experience your greatest growth. Try to always be aware, considerate, and kind to others.

6.  What achievement of your career are you most proud of?

There have been many rewarding moments and projects. Much of my work has focused on improving the state’s transportation systems. I have been a long-time advocate for rail and public transit.

But the experience that sticks out the most in my mind is the city’s 21st Century Vision project around the years 2000-2003. Watching the enthusiasm of community members engage with each other and coming up with shared dreams was fantastic. The sessions for all Vision Teams were held at the convention center with hundreds in attendance. The excitement I felt watching them will never be forgotten. I was proud to be a planner and part of the city team. Mahalo to all who were part of that special time.