by David Shackleton
(You can reply below or contact David at  david@integraldesign.org)

I attended last week, as part of my duties as CREWC Building Project Manager, a course by the City of Ottawa on how to plan building projects and work with the City rules and regulations.  At one point in the presentation, when we were discussing how subdivisions were planned, the presenter put up a picture of a wooded area that was subsequently turned into a Kanata subdivision.  She described the area as “vacant land’.

She meant, of course, that there were no people living there at the time the picture was taken.  However, my immediate thought was, “That’s not vacant land, it’s inhabited by trees and animals and birds.”

The presenter’s implied definition of “vacant” is probably correct if I consult a dictionary.  However, I think it’s unbalanced.  If all that we see, or all that we give weight to in considering whether to “develop” land (as if what we do when we cut down trees and scrape away topsoil is “development”!) is our own species and our own interests, that seems arrogant to me.

There is no question that we have the power to destroy the homes and lives of trees, animals and birds in constructing a subdivision.  We cannot abdicate or surrender that power.  So the question comes down to, what does it mean to use our power responsibly?  If the trees and animals cannot advocate on their own behalf, and they cannot, then we must do so for them.  We must use our power consciously.

We must be aware that in building homes for a hundred more human families, we are destroying the homes of maybe a thousand animals, birds and trees.  What is the right thing to do?  There is no right answer in the abstract, the question must be considered in detail, in the particular circumstances that apply — this land, these trees, these animals, these birds, these people.  We must find a way to weigh our own interests in balance with the interests of others who share the planet with us.

We are far from this yet.  The first step is to become aware of the interests of those others, to recognize that they are there, that their lives matter.  In short, that woodlands, even grasslands, aren’t “vacant,” but intensely populated, and highly developed.  Nature has spent literally millions of years developing the species that share the planet with us.  Let us seek ways to balance our self-interest with concern for the health of our life-partners, the other species of our natural world.