People walking, dancing hula, practicing tai chi near a stream

Rendering of outdoor community space in Kalihi, See more images at the ACSA website.

Khoa Nguyen and Valerie Nica Ribao

The term “agricultural urbanism” may seem like an oxymoron, but two University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa doctor of architecture (DArch) candidates were honored nationally for effectively visualizing the concept of incorporating and intensifying agricultural activity in a city setting like Kalihi.

The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) awarded Khoa Nguyen and Valerie Nica Ribao a $1,250 prize for their project, “Oʻahu Ahupuaʻa: Connecting Land, Water and People,” in the agricultural urbanism category of the annual Designing Healthy Places competition. The team was one of five national winners selected out of 169 entries.

Their renderings reimagined the ahupuaʻa for the 21st century, a self-sustaining unit in Hawaiian cultural and trade practice. It focused on turning industrial structures into a farmers’ market and greenhouse to support local products grown from the mountains and forested uplands.

The greenhouse would provide supplies and seedlings that could be given to farmers. An aquaponics system was placed in the stream to further clean the water before it met the ocean.

“The Kalihi ahupuaʻa has largely fallen into disrepair. It is hidden from sight, forgotten and disconnected, with trash on its banks and overgrown with invasive plants,” said Nguyen. “Our design was guided by the Hawaiian value of mālama ʻaina, to care for the land so it, in turn, can sustain life for ourselves and future generations.”

Added Ribao, “I am seeking a DArch as a step to get my professional license as an architect. Generally, I want to focus on urban equality for the elderly in the Kalihi area, where I grew up.”

A jury of design and health experts was impressed with the students’ vision: “This project intentionally broadens the definition of health to include environmental and cultural elements. Food insecurity is an important social problem and becomes a driver for thinking about architecture and landscape architecture in this project. By reclaiming wetland farming, this project is going back to cultural definitions of the land and society’s relationship to the land.”

Nguyen and Ribao both hold bachelor degrees in environmental design from UH Mānoa and work at the UH Community Design Center. Sara Jensen Carr was the students’ faculty advisor.

In addition to the ACSA, the competition was co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Institute of Architects.

The UH School of Architecture offers the only doctor of architecture program in the Asia/Pacific accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board.