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The Planet

Stopping Sprawl

The Planet, April 1997, Volume 4, number 3

Nothing threatens our air, water and wild places more than low-density, automobile-dependent development.

If you're like many Sierra Club members, you'd probably like to live out in the country with a sparkling view of the mountains from the window of your spacious home, the peaceful gurgle of a creek to sing you to sleep at night and the sharp scent of a lush forest to greet you when you open the door. You want to live in concert with nature -- at least until that first mountain lion sighting.

How could the Sierra Club not support such an idyllic vision?

Because to live out there, you'd need roads and cars, grocery stores and schools, drinking water and electricity. And the people who stock the shelves at the store and teach your children at school either have to live out there, too, or commute, most likely by car. And before you know it, the wide open spaces aren't so wide anymore, new subdivisions are crawling up the side of the mountains, traffic on the highway drowns out the sounds of the creek and the air smells of car exhaust.

That's sprawl -- low-density, automobile-dependent development spread out over the landscape at the urban fringe and in rural areas. It not only paves over farmland and wildlife habitat but contributes to disinvestment from the urban centers, which in turn drives people to the outskirts in an endless search for "a better quality of life." Stopping sprawl is the Sierra Club's newest national campaign.

Traditionally, our national campaigns have focused on pressuring the U.S. Congress to pass laws that protect our air and water, and preserve unspoiled wildlands and the species that inhabit them.

But nothing threatens our air, water and wild places more than sprawl. This new locally focused campaign is of concern to nearly every Sierra Club chapter and group and intersects with other current Club battles, such as the Endangered Species Act and wetlands protection campaigns. As longtime biodiversity advocate John Hopkins, member of the Challenge to Sprawl campaign steering committee, says, "The way we can help protect wildlife and habitat the most is by taking part in land use planning to stop sprawl."

Mostly it has to be fought locally because county commissioners, city council members and state legislators decide how land is used. The pattern is similar everywhere. What town or city doesn't have a strip with look-alike fast food and motel chains defining its periphery? How many rural and urban areas don't face pressures to develop the surrounding farmland? Where don't developers want to build more roads? Hundreds of local "stop the whatever" efforts have already sprouted in response to local land use crises. There are also efforts to address the crumbling schools and roads, and the abandoned industrial sites and stagnant economies that plague our cities. The Club's new campaign aims to support those activities, establish links between them and channel them into a national effort that addresses the root causes of sprawl and creates positive goals for each community's future.

"We don't want to get caught up in just being anti-this and anti-that," says Challenge to Sprawl Campaign Co-chair Tim Frank. "Rather than being against development, we are for community. We're for development -- or redevelopment -- of compact, vibrant, livable communities." After all, how can we preserve open space and prevent flight to the suburbs without making the cities more livable? How can we stop new roads without improving public transit? How can we get people out of their cars without making the streets safer and more attractive for pedestrians and bicyclists?

The specific objectives of the campaign are:

One challenge, of course, will be to avoid echoing sprawl in the campaign itself -- with lots of uncoordinated efforts and no central organizing principle. Instead, the goal is a positive comprehensive development plan analogous to what we're demanding of sprawling towns and cities.

More sprawl....turning back new roads

For contacts, publications and more information, see the resource box on the following page.

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