RAISE, Roanoke Area Interfaith Stewards of the Earth, is a local organization of people of faith who care about our environment. As members of RAISE, we encourage all people of faith and good will to consider the future of the Evans Spring area of northwest Roanoke. As decisions are made about the future of this land, we urge that the following be kept in mind:
All land ownership is provisional. Land belongs primarily to its creator, who many of us know as God. In our Abrahamic traditions we believe that “the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1 NRSV). Arguably, using the land for human purposes, while permitted, is not necessarily the land’s highest use. On its own, nature praises God through beauty and biodiversity, ceaselessly, every day. If we seek to stifle that praise, we must have an extremely good reason. Evans Spring in particular is very special, classified as a rare “freshwater emergent wetland” or “wet meadow.” In this special place, cattail, bluejoint grass, reed canary grass, soft rush, wood grass, sedges, smartweeds, asters, goldenrods, lily pads, sycamore, and others praise their creator. Stifling this song of praise is something we must not do lightly.
Not all citizens are human. Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that the maple trees are the most loyal and service-oriented citizens in her entire town (Braiding Sweetgrass 168). We note significant discourse around Evans Spring that implies that “undeveloped” land is “wasted.” We beg to differ. Apart from the land’s function in praising God, noted above, the ecosystem services provided by this land contribute significantly to human well-being in the area. Evans Spring serves as an important stormwater catchment area; the spring and surrounding area feed a watershed that flows into our beloved Roanoke River. Evans Spring also provides an island of cool in the midst of an overall sweltering neighborhood. In those heat maps of Roanoke, Evans Spring shows as a patch of blue in the midst of reds and oranges. As temperatures continue to increase due to climate change, we need these cool areas more than ever.
Listen to the neighbors. We are acutely aware of the injustices, betrayals, and incredibly harmful actions taken by the city of Roanoke towards residents of the Gainsboro neighborhood and surrounding African-American neighborhoods. It is high time that Roanoke City show some contrition and repentance; one way to do this would be to listen to the communities of color who live near Evans Spring, and act in their best interest rather than in the interest of land owners. This would clearly demonstrate that the city is concerned with the needs of all of its citizens. We strongly support a proposal to buy Evans Spring from the landowners to turn it into a city park and green space. The alternative – development in Evans Spring – would add to the heat index by the very nature of the buildings, parking areas, and other infrastructure. Do we really need our strong but struggling Northwest neighborhoods to be even hotter than they are already, knowing the correlations between crime and heat? Holistic health and environmental justice both support the proposal to keep Evans Spring green.
Creative problem solving can create a win-win. Developing Evans Spring seems to offer much needed housing and retail, but this is an illusion. Our affordable housing problems can be solved through infill – fix up existing vacant houses, build on vacant lots within existing neighborhoods, and permit greater density in existing neighborhoods – rather than by paving over God’s green earth. Retail needs are similar; let’s prioritize retrofits and re-builds on current shopping areas rather than despoiling God’s creation for the sake of profit. These measures would add tax dollars to the city as well, maybe even more than development in Evans Springs (since infill typically doesn’t require the city to build out costly infrastructure on new construction). Creative problem solving should always include reusing and repurposing existing structures first. It’s less wasteful of materials and reflects a city concerned about its environmental footprint. And surely the advantages for our storm water system, parks system, and overall community well-being would make any financial outlay, to turn Evans Spring into a park, worthwhile.
Our city’s guiding documents point to the importance of preserving Evans Spring. The Climate Action Plan and City Plan 2040 claim “Harmony with Nature” as an important value for our city. This value includes the importance of wise land use and water resource management, good tree stewardship and plentiful outdoor recreation in a clean and beautiful city. Preserving Evans Spring as a green space clearly supports this very important value from our city’s 2040 plan. The Climate Action Plan, which has been officially adopted, calls city leaders to “identify sensitive lands… within the City and create practices to protect and encourage connections between them” (Chapter 8, p. 100). It also proposes “strategic acquisition of floodplain” areas (103) as part of an effort to “protect the natural function of undeveloped floodplains” (104). Finally, the Climate Action Plan calls for the city to “conduct an economic evaluation to monetize ecosystem services” for areas “under potential development” – this should inform decision making (114). It seems obvious that Evans Spring is a “sensitive land” worthy of “strategic acquisition”; allowing development will lead to harm – including economic harm – in the long term.
We have an obligation to the past, and to the future. Future generations need us to use land wisely so that they can survive, and thrive in, a climate-changed world. They will need maximum green space and minimal urban sprawl. Past generations also lay claim on us. Injustices from the past, such as urban renewal, haunt this current situation. Let us move, albeit belatedly and inadequately, towards justice for communities that have been harmed, rather than reinforcing past traumas. Budgets are moral documents. As a community, we must let our actions reflect our values.
As RAISE, we call on all people of faith and goodwill to support the preservation of the undeveloped land in Evans Spring. And we ask city leaders who make these decisions to consult their conscience, individually and collectively, and act in accordance with what is right, not simply what is expedient or profitable.
Rev. Dr. David Jones, Dr. Laura M. Hartman, Dr. Saleem Ahmed, Michael L. Bentley, EdD, Bill Bestpitch, Polly Branch,Sr. Phyllis Cox, Bob Egbert, Jane Gabrielle, Rev. Dr. Faith B. Harris, Joanne Hawley, Ellen Holtman, Greg and Mary Keene, Diane Koropchak, Tyler Lyon, Christa Madison, Rabbi Jama Purser, Anna Tulou, Jennie L.M. Waering and Luci Wright.