The Outdoor Circle’s Centennial

Marti Townsend. Photo courtesy Martha Townsend

I recently spent time with a friend who came to visit all the way from cold, snowy Finland. We did what tourists do, which as a local I find refreshing and fun.

We explored the sights (and smells) of Chinatown. We drove through the Koolau range to Valley of the Temples and savored the serenity of the Byodo-In. We ended up having a perfect lunch at Buzz’s in Kailua before making our way to the beach, where my friend gasped at the turquoise perfection of the ocean.

In fact, everywhere we went my friend Mia pointed out things I had almost forgotten to appreciate. The colors, she exclaimed, over and over. And look, it’s so green! Wow, the view! We don’t have anything like these mountains in Finland! And on and on.

We forget, sometimes, that we live in paradise.

Which is why the subject of today’s column is so appropriate, and so deserving.

The Outdoor Circle is one of those organizations we locals take for granted, yet it’s largely responsible for the beauty my friend came to Hawaii to appreciate. It’s been around for as long as most of us can remember – in fact, we are closing out the year of its 100th anniversary.

Most of us know The Outdoor Circle plants trees and saves trees. We also know it as the muscle behind the law that keeps our islands free of the blight of billboards.

What most don’t know is the history of The Outdoor Circle as a powerful grass-roots vehicle for the strength, determination and vision of women.

Three women started it all: Mrs. Henry Waterhouse, her daughter Elnora Sturgeon and Honolulu schoolteacher Cherilla Lowrey. The year was 1911. The ladies were in Paris taking inspiration from the Gardens of Versailles. They vowed that when they returned to the Islands they would dedicate themselves to turning Hawaii into a place of beauty.

The Outdoor Circle was born in 1912. Its first president was Cherilla Lowrey.

According to Bob Loy, director of environmental programs at The Outdoor Circle, “The task was daunting – transform dirty, dusty and by many accounts ugly urban Honolulu into a place that would instill pride in its residents and raise the quality of life for everyone.”

The original goals:

* Clear away front-yard empty cans and other rubbish.

* Make a flower bloom where a broken saucepan held sway.

* Border thoroughfares with flowering trees.

* Discourage unsightly structures.

* Convert careless householders to beautifiers.

* Snip government red tape in the cause of beautification fight against ugly billboards.

The Outdoor Circle recruited hundreds of members – all women – who even before suffrage “were determined to stand up, speak out and change the face of their community.”

Which is exactly what they did.

Today both men and women volunteer for The Outdoor Circle, and they are all still standing up and speaking out for a clean, green and beautiful Hawaii. The old organization is pushing forward and has a new face as president, Marti Townsend, an Aiea girl, Boston University alumna and graduate of the UH law school.

Townsend, who cut her environmental teeth as an intern for The Outdoor Circle back in the days when it was battling HECO over power lines at Waahila Ridge, says she’s committed to the mission: “My hope for the organization is that we continue to modernize and evolve with the times.”

They’re starting the process with small steps. For example, digitizing the newsletter rather than printing it. For the larger picture, they’re going through a process of strategic planning right now. Townsend hopes to work with broader coalitions “striving toward complementary goals.”

Recently they’ve been a voice of opposition to the city’s rail project. To clarify, Townsend says they are not against rail. They just want a better, more environmentally sensible and less visibly jarring project.

A more long-term goal is what she calls the “Complete Streets Initiative,” which seeks to move cities away from concrete meccas to more livable, walkable, accessible urban areas that retain their natural beauty.”

It’s an idea that’s gaining popularity all over the U.S.

“I think it’s clear we have a legacy,” Townsend says, “and that legacy is powerful, inspiring, energizing.”

Her job is to focus that energy on quality-of-life issues that will affect us in the years to come.

“It may be transportation now, but it in the future it could be energy, or land use or growing local food. The point is the organization needs to be in a position where it can be an effective advocate.”

And they’ll never stop planting trees.