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The Planet
January/February 1999 Volume 6, Number 1

Stopping Sprawl

Sprawl Activism a 'Dart in the Bubble'

by John Barry

It wasn't a good day for Atlanta, but the cameras and the tape recorders kept rolling. So it turned out just fine for Bryan Hager.

The city's most-listened-to radio station, WSB 750 AM, led its hourly news summary with the teaser: "Atlanta tops another worst-of list and you are probably sitting in part of the reason why."

It was Sept. 9, and the Sierra Club had just released "The Dark Side of the American Dream," a report on the top 20 sprawl-threatened cities in the United States. Atlanta was number one.

Hager, a Sierra Club organizer who grew up in the Atlanta area, was neither surprised nor dismayed by Atlanta's ranking. "Nothing gets the attention of our political and business leaders like aiming a dart at the bubble of their boosterism."

It was a hectic but satisfying day for Hager. He conducted three on- camera television interviews as well as several over-the-phone radio and newspaper interviews. He also organized a telephone press conference.

The release of the report, which received extraordinary coverage across the country, made a huge splash in a watershed year for the Club's Sprawl campaign. In 1997, sprawl emerged as a priority issue within the organization. In 1998, it exploded into a front-page story across the country, often with the Sierra Club's efforts highlighted.

"The Club's greatest success has been publicizing the problem and beginning to change public attitudes," said Tim Frank, co-chair of the national Challenge to Sprawl campaign. "But in 1998, we made actual strides in preventing it."

In the Washington, D.C., area, the Club helped stop a proposed new beltway and a planned development in Chapman Forest along the Potomac River. In Utah, by relentlessly pointing out the sprawl it would foster, we turned public opinion against the Legacy Highway. Construction has been delayed and we may yet defeat it entirely (See "How EPEC Is Changing the Landscape."

One of the big challenges ahead is making advances on the "restore the core" programs, like the one in Washington, D.C., which aims to spur reinvestment in inner cities. The link between deteriorating inner cities and sprawl has gained currency. New Columbia Chapter activists like Gwyn Davis, Jim Dougherty and Anna El-Eini have built support for the notion that the federal government should site new government agency offices in the district, and forged new relationships with community groups. (In Washington, the new mayor Anthony Williams, a Club member, sported a Club-produced "Restore the Core" button at his inauguration.)

Still ahead: concrete progress.

In November 1998, the Club Board of Directors voted to adopt sprawl as one of the four priority campaigns for 1999-2000. In 1999, for the first time, the Club will have full-time staff dedicated to fighting sprawl.

"Sprawl is not inevitable, but often a result of ill-advised policies and projects," said Frank. "We are increasingly selling the notion that there are practical alternatives to sprawl and that we can stop it."

Go on to the next article, "How EPEC Is Changing the Landscape."
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