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Stop Sprawl

How to plan a Tour de Sprawl to highlight unplanned development in your community

by Brett Hulsey, Midwest Representative

Imagine a sea of bikers heading down a country road to a farm threatened by uncontrolled sprawl. A bus of local and county officials, press, and TV cameras pull up to the farm, where the farm family lays out a spread of just harvested treats. The farmer stands on the back of a tractor and rails against unplanned development that threatens their very way of life and ability to farm. He calls for a county program to protect farm and park land. The Sunday paper headlines and TV shows include Sierra Club activists and the farm family uniting to stop sprawl.

This is the kind of press you can generate from a "Tour de Sprawl" in your area. This public education tool was invented by the Minnesota North Star chapter two years ago, and has been used at more than 10 locations in the Midwest to generate press and public attention on sprawl issues since 1996.

When considering doing a tour in your area, here are a few things to consider:

1. Who is your audience?

This determines who will speak and when you hold the tour. If you want the press and public officials, you may want to shoot for a weekday. If you want 100 people on bikes and a big splash, you may want to shoot for the weekend.

2. What is your goal? What do you want to happen?

Do you want to stop a project, pass a referendum, organize a coalition? If you want to stop a particular project, hang your tour on that. If you want to pass a new master plan, target several hot development projects.

3. Why should your audience care about your goal?

Use your local issue to increase the relevance of your tour. If reducing traffic in our neighborhoods is important, you can show that the new highway will only increase commuter traffic in these once-quiet neighborhoods. If you are in Iowa, talk about protecting farm families and farmland. If near a major flood area, talk about protecting families from floods and stopping floodplain sprawl.

4. What values relate to this goal?

Protecting our families is always a key value, how does that relate to your local campaign. How will your tour highlight that issue. Recent focus groups from around the country highlight the values to stress:

a. Responsibility to family and oneself/safety

  • sense of community
  • permanency
  • education

b. Freedom

  • space
  • privacy
  • individuality
  • convenience

c. Appreciation for nature and natural beauty/protect parks and green space

5. What is your over-arching message?

Try this one developed by a recent sprawl strategy meeting:

"We have the responsibility to our families to protect parks and open space, invest in our community, and plan for our future. Uncontrolled development and sprawl threatens our communities by destroying green space, taking resources from our community, and takes away our individual choices. To stop this, we need to stop the beltway, invest in our communities, and let's do something to conserve parks and green space, plan for future choices, for our children and our community."

6. What images to use?

A flooded home and family in Louisville, a threatened farm in Iowa and Michigan, a sea of rooftops in Illinois and Wisconsin, a dilapidated mall in Des Moines. All of these were powerful images for our tour and the media in those areas.

7. What is your anecdote or story?

Make sure this matches you image, message, and goal. In Louisville it was the Betsy Overstreet story where neighbors destroyed the wetland and now her property floods. Then we went to a place that was flooded in March, and there was a mall project planned that would destroy more wetlands and increase flooding. FOX News did a four-part series, and the project was stopped the Army denied the wetlands destruction permit.

8. Not just the facts, but they don't hurt.

Have your facts ready. This is a good time to release your own Sprawl Costs Us All report, use county planning documents like the Master Plan, use your county transportation plan or transportation improvement plan (TIP).

Did you know that the Army Corps grants 99% of the wetland destruction permits putting thousands of people at risk from flooding each year, according to their own database? Here in anytown, they grant 92% of the permits, according to the Environmental Working Group website, Go to the "where you live" section, and click on wetland destruction.

9. Are we promoting a specific action?

Be specific about what you want: the planning commission should not rezone this farm for residential use. Army Corps should veto these wetland destruction permits. Governor should support a community conservation bill. Focus your whole tour on convincing those who need it.

10. Who are your messengers?

Make your messengers fit your message and your tour. Might want to include: farmers, inner city ministers, local mayors, flood and crash victims. Follow up with local planners or professors. Then follow with local activists. Make sure they have a good story.

11. Have fun.

Remember, this could be all there is, so enjoy your tour. It is a great way to energize other happy warriors.

See also a draft press release on Michigan's Tour de Sprawl

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