Should universities practice what they teach?
Having moved to the beautiful state of Missouri some 46 years ago, I have been deeply impressed with what nature has to offer here to all of our citizens. I was able to deepen my knowledge of the state while serving as a member of the Board of Curators from 1985 to 1990, and to realize what our fine university system has to offer in so many ways to all of the people of Missouri.
As the population of our state and country increase steadily, however, we are going to have to learn to live in peace with our countryside and to build our urban areas in compact yet sustainable ways: there is simply not enough land to keep growing outward forever since we need agricultural and forestry lands to feed us and supply our other needs and nature to refresh our spirits.
I understand that it is now being proposed that a large housing development be built on land owned by the university that is adjacent to the Busch Memorial and Weldon Springconservation areas, a largely undeveloped, forested area just west of Chesterfield in St. Charles County. Along with the nearby conservation areas, it forms a really significant place at the edge of the St. Louis metropolitan region. It is a wonderful asset for the whole community and one that I argue should be preserved for future generations.
St. Louis has sprawled out into the countryside much more rapidly than its population has grown, and has one of the lowest housing densities near an urban area anywhere in the nation. The trouble with continually making decisions to develop wild land is that they are essentially irreversible: once gone, nature cannot really be restored to what it was. We conserve it by developing rationally, not by simply taking the next available piece away from what’s left. With the population within St. Louis city limits now at approximately 316,000, down from 857,000 in 1950 and thousands of vacant lots and houses in a formerly flourishing area, it hardly seems the time to take away another piece of our existing natural areas in order to add a few hundred more conventionally packed houses.
For these reasons, I hope that the UM System Board of Curators will find it possible to turn away from this development project. Obviously, I understand that in times like these it is necessary to have funds to run the university properly and keep it the kind of asset it ought to be for all of our citizens. Nonetheless, it would be a great time for the curators to lead, as we have on so many important issues in the past, and do something of lasting value for all of our citizens for the long run. There must be creative ways to zone any development on this property so that it isn’t simply a scattered group of houses on steep and beautiful bluffs overlooking the Missouri River and the Katy Trail.
As a curator, I fairly often found it necessary to act in ways that extended beyond the immediate, ones that involved the maintenance of lasting values for which we were the caretakers. To me, this is such a problem, one that would benefit from additional thought before considering any development at this very special place.
Pat Jones, who with her late husband, Ted, created the Katy Trail, one of our state’s great natural assets, recently wrote in a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that with this proposed land sale, the university “no longer practices what it teaches.” I would agree strongly with that assessment and I encourage the curators to develop a kinder plan for dealing with this beautiful and natural property.
Best wishes to all for a most successful, and sustainable, New Year!
Peter Raven is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican and a trustee of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.