Green spaces: Robbing Peter to pay Paul?

In 2010, I graduated from James Madison University in Virginia. I’ve been back twice since then — once in October 2010 and once this past September. And in 18 short months, I was surprised how much has changed.

Parking lots have been turned into grassy areas. Gates have been installed at campus entrances, only letting emergency vehicles, service vehicles and buses through, in an effort to promote walking, biking and other alternative transportation. An entire hillside has been planted with native grasses and wildflower to prevent soil erosion.

Building on movements that started in our dining halls when I was in college, James Madison seems to be continuing its commitment to sustainability and the environment. And while it was strange to see the changes, it also made me proud.

That is, until I drove by the apartment complexes I used to live in. And there, tucked into the corner of an intersection where a huge, grassy hill used to sit covered in trees, were fences and parking lots and AstroTurf. It had started when I was in school, because I remember the bulldozers and other construction equipment slowly tearing down the trees — scores and scores of them. In the last 18 months, they’ve leveled off the hill into a few wide “steps,” each one home to a new athletic field for soccer, field hockey, rugby or the like.

And it made me angry.

I understand the push to operate sustainably doesn’t always fall in line with a growing university that needs additional space for its sports programs, residence halls, dining spaces, classrooms, etc. I understand the concept of a “zero net impact” — that you offset your negative environmental impact with positive actions, like planting a tree to offset your car’s CO2 emissions. You can argue that the university did this, by turning parking lots into green spaces and offsetting the destruction of a field and a forest.

But it also strikes me as a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. I’m glad the school is encouraging bikers, walkers and bus-riders with the gates. I’m glad it’s turning paved areas back to grass. But when it turns around and bulldozes over an acre’s worth of trees, what message does this send?

A while back, I asked the question of whose responsibility it is to push forward on sustainability — the individual or the government? It’s a big question that I don’t have the answer for, and I don’t have the answer here either. Is it OK to push forward on sustainability initiatives in certain areas but destroy green space for other projects? Is it better than doing nothing at all?

Would it bother you if you saw a similar situation here in York?

Sarah Chain

I'm an avid reader and book lover living and working in downtown York. Follow me on Twitter at @sarahEchain.

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