Oops, we ALL cut the trees down

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I am hesitant to write more about the conversion of Hayes Arboretum land into commercial shopping space - so much has already been said. But I feel compelled to point out my sense that Richmond, as a community, is finding some good in a situation that, for a while, only seemed to have negative feelings and outcomes attached to it all around. Indeed, I am hopeful (perhaps naively so) that it may serve as a turning point in how we shape Richmond's future.

Perhaps the most important good is that people are talking out loud with each other about what it means to them to see this kind of change in our community, whether they are for it or against it or somewhere in between. People are experiencing direct emotional and personal impact around the issue, and acting on it. In a town where ongoing and widespread public expression of opinion on a controversial issue is historically rare and a single editorial page of a single newspaper dominates the practice, it is heartening to see people and institutions and organizations ponder the values and future of Richmond in the context of these events. Whatever the outcome of the process, when we have dialogue about the issues that matter to us, we are a stronger community for it, and it makes tackling the next challenge or opportunity that much easier.

Another good that comes from this is that we couldn't have asked for a more starkly painted contrast of the whole "commercial interests" versus "preservation and green space" theme. Even the Pal-Item's editorial cartoon today shows the simple image of a tree (labeled "nature") cut down by a chain-saw (labeled "commerce").

At some level, we all know that it isn't the big bad businesses that have come in and cut down our trees because they felt like it - instead, it's the profit motive driving them, and that profit motive is based solely on the pretty safe bet that we as a community of consumers will pay them for their efforts. In the end, it's our culture, our purchasing choices, and our relative complacency in these matters that brought those trees down and that will retroactively justify and support the choices of the "decision makers" involved. And so while we have purchased it at a great cost, we now have before us a very visceral manifestation of the impact and importance of our choices as consumers and members of an interdependent community - locally, regionally, globally. The good we can take away from this is to weigh those choices more carefully the next time around, with the forthcoming Richmond Village as an ever-present reminder to do so.

The bitterness will no doubt continue, and the strong opinions will no doubt lead to more tension and narrow-mindedness on all sides of the issue. But making Richmond a better place to live depends on our ability to learn from the experience, use that knowledge intentionally and wisely as we move forward, and ceasing to take for granted the reality that, above all else, it is our choices as individuals and as a community that shape the landscape - physical and metaphorical - of Richmond's future.

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