I was recently updating the DC Sierra Club chapter’s web page on smart growth, on which I’ve added a few links to resources about the Club and Chapter’s heritage of smart growth advocacy. Even I was surprised at how thoroughly the Club’s key policies embrace smart growth.
The overarching “Sierra Club Strategic Plan Overarching Visionary Goals” document lists as two of its 21 strategies:
Maximize energy efficiency across all sectors, including transportation, urban design, and land use. […]
Protect our air, water, land, and communities from pollution. Promote environmentally sensitive land use and urban design to minimize sprawl, provide a healthy environment for all, and minimize resource use.
Interestingly, the strategy that calls to “Protect and restore wildlands and waterways” continues that those wildlands serve a specific, objective, quantifiable purpose: “to provide large and connected habitats.” Not to protect the favorite views of favored humans, or to protect property values for landowners, but to rescue non-human species from the threat of habitat fragmentation.
The Club’s Infill Policy, adopted in May 2019, is unequivocal:
An essential strategy for reducing urban related carbon emissions is supporting dense, mixed-use communities and land uses that prioritize walking, biking or transit to meet daily transportation needs, as well as balancing jobs and housing within the region. If we make communities not only dense, but inclusive, then fewer people will have to drive till they qualify for housing financing, saving even more emissions.
Development should be dense, inclusive, and located within or connected to existing communities and neighborhoods…
Development areas served by public transportation, shared transportation, public infrastructure (wastewater, water, roads, etc.) should be zoned for dense/multi-family/mixed use development in order to reduce emissions and waste. New areas should not be zoned for exclusively single family housing only.
Development should be allowed at the highest densities within walking and bicycling distance of transit stations.
Regulations and public incentives should expand housing choices in neighborhoods that offer access to educational and economic opportunity.
The Policy on Urban Environment, adopted by the board in 1986, states (emphasis added):
…the Sierra Club urges planning and policies which stimulate…
“Infill” residential and commercial development on unused or under-used land within city boundaries…
Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption…
Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes…
These development patterns and transit improvements would conserve energy, water, land and building materials while enhancing the pleasure and safety of urban life and reducing travel distances.
The Transportation Policy, adopted in 1994, supports policy and systems that “encourage land uses that minimize travel requirements; strengthen local communities, towns and urban centers.”
The broad Energy Resources Policy (PDF) directly refers to smart growth and transit. In section VII.A.3:
Reduce the need to drive passenger vehicles by shortening the distance between workplace, home, shopping and school, using “smart growth” planning and improved transportation options. Provide safe and appealing options for walking, bicycling and mass transit, including light rail passenger trains, which will reduce vehicle trips, emissions, fuel consumption, and the demand for new roads and pavement. Well-designed mixed-use communities create long-term reductions in energy usage. Appropriately designed public transportation systems are an essential component of a sustainable energy society… Congestion pricing should be applied, when feasible. Parking costs should be efficiently and conveniently unbundled to give consumers and employees more control over how they choose to spend their money.
If your local Sierra Club entity is proving unnecessarily obtuse in not living up to these policies, I’d suggest engaging by appealing to the Club’s strong sense of tradition, deference to higher authorities (encoded in the “One Club” policy), broader principles, and yes, policies. One specific idea: ask them to review the “Guidelines Governing Decisions on Schools, Hospitals or Other Projects Serving Economically Disadvantaged Communities.” Those require specific steps before Club entities decide to oppose or endorse a public facility, with a specific mention of “low-income housing project” (and thus many large-scale infill developments subject to inclusionary requirements). Notably, the Club must have a face-to-face listening session with those who will benefit, and write a 2-page assessment of the proposal and “any feasible environmentally superior alternatives” — which cannot include displacing housing to sprawling locations. Even where opposition by the Club may very well be warranted, the policy requires that it be thoughtful and considered, rather than knee-jerk.