Pieces of the Puzzle
How Burlington became one of America's most sustainable communities.
For 20 years, Burlington, Vermont, has been pursuing policies that buck the growth-at-any-cost trend followed by so many other medium-sized cities. The policies the city adopted in the early ‘80s emphasize economic self-sufficiency, local ownership, fairness, environmental protection, inclusiveness, and a strong nonprofit “third sector.” Some would say such policies are a recipe for economic decline. But Burlington has a string of success stories that show the practical power of its vision.
|Photo courtesy of the Institute for Sustainable Communities|
Will Raap, an urban planner by training, was one of Burlington’s sustainable development pioneers. In 1985 Raap moved his Gardener’s Supply Company to an unlikely location—the Intervale, an area that since the early 1900s had been the town’s dump. Its dominant feature was the McNeil power plant, a wood burning plant that uses wood chips, sawdust, and urban wood waste to generate 50 megawatts of electricity—nearly enough to power the entire city.
It was the power plant that attracted Raap. He hoped to use the plant’s waste heat to warm his buildings and greenhouse. The first step, however, was to clear the land of junk and restore the soil of the valley, which had once been a fertile floodplain. He established the Burlington Compost Program in 1987, using a combination of food and yard waste from local households and a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream plant. Once a potential farm site was restored by the compost, he moved the mobile composting operation to the next site. Eventually the operation became too large to move, at which point it put down roots and compost became a Burlington export within the region.
Meanwhile, all that fertile land was being put to good use. The nonprofit Intervale Foundation, which has since taken over the composting operation, manages about 300 acres in the Intervale as an organic farm incubator. Would-be farmers get their starts using the Foundation’s land, equipment, and technical expertise. Once they become proficient, they buy their own farm land in Vermont and make way for the next generation of farmers-in-training. The graduates become part of a mutual support system, in which they share marketing, knowledge, and farm equipment.
The Intervale is now home to 14 farms, including four community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations that supply food to 1,000 subscribing families. All told, Intervale supplies about 6 percent of Burlington’s food supply—up from 0.1 percent when the Foundation started and well along towards the goal of 10 percent.
Closing the loop
This fall, the Intervale Foundation and the city of Burlington will break ground on their most ambitious project to date: the Intervale Community Food Enterprise Center. This $4-million project will combine a 21,000-square-foot greenhouse with a 20,000-square foot food production facility to provide local entrepreneurs with an affordable, state-of-the-art food growing and processing facility.
One of the lead tenants will be Wind Harvest Brewery, an artisan brewery that will make beer from locally grown hops and fruits, providing an additional market for nearby farmers. Liquid wastes from the brewing process will go to the compost project and to a living machine created by John Todd’s Ocean Arks International. The living machine is a human-made ecosystem, a carefully balanced set of sixteen 500-gallon tanks that create a biologically diverse food web that turns waste into fish food and fish waste into people food.
Other tenants of the center will include River Run Foods, which will make ketchup, sauces, and jambalaya from local produce; a community kitchen for nutrition education and fledgling entrepreneurs; and a winter CSA project. The facility will use state-of-the-art green building practices, and most of the heat requirements—even in Vermont’s frigid winters—will be met by using waste heat from the McNeil Generating Station next door, just as Raap envisioned when he came to the Intervale.
The Intervale story is just a part of Burlington’s success with sustainable development. In the early ‘80s, Burlington adopted a set of policies that have guided its efforts over the last 20 years. These policies emphasize economic self-sufficiency, local ownership, fairness, environmental protection, inclusiveness, and a strong third sector made up of nonprofit businesses and organizations that work in concert with government.
Burlington has lots of other results to show for its sustainable development policies. Here are a few:
Groceries:When the city’s last downtown grocery closed several years ago, residents realized that, as in many other communities, essential services were leaving the city center for the suburbs. The city decided to lease a city parking lot on attractive terms to a grocery store, through a competitive bid process.
The local food co-op won the bid, and opened its new 17,000-square-foot energy-efficient facility a year ago. The store now serves 1,800 customers a day and has met its sales projections from the day it opened. The co-op offers a full range of natural, organic, and traditional supermarket items at competitive prices, all with a bias toward locally grown food.
Housing and Land:With a housing shortage and a community-wide aversion to suburban sprawl, maintaining affordable housing is a challenge. The centerpiece of the city’s response is the Burlington Community Land Trust (BCLT), the largest land trust in the country and the first to be created and funded by a municipality. With over 250 units—mostly single-family homes and condominiums—BCLT insulates affordable housing from market forces and land speculation, assures access to land and housing for low-income people, and preserves and improves neighborhoods.
BCLT is also a major redeveloper of brownfields (blighted industrial and commercial property) in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, transforming them into housing, nonprofit, and commercial space.
Banking:The Burlington Ecumenical Action Ministry founded the Vermont Development Credit Union in 1990. The member-owned cooperative, which serves low-income and other underserved populations, is now self-sustaining. In the 10 years since it was founded, the credit union has provided banking services to 6,600 low-income Vermonters, made 4,900 loans with less than a 1 percent default rate, made available $35 million in capital, and provided financing for 250 new homeowners.
Power:In the late 1980s, Burlington’s municipally owned power company faced a tough choice: should it buy power from a controversial hydropower project in Quebec or take that same money and invest it in energy conservation? Burlington chose the latter. In 1990, the city authorized an $11.3 million bond to fund the energy-saving program. The result: nearly 15,000 individual energy-efficiency installations, saving customers $4.3 million annually on their electric bills. The majority of the work was done by local contractors, resulting in job growth and reinvestment in the local economy.
Democracy: In the early 1980s, then Mayor (now US Representative) Bernie Saunders, established seven Neighborhood Planning Assemblies to give citizens a vehicle for solving neighborhood problems, allocating funds for neighborhood projects, and choosing citizens to represent their neighborhoods on a variety of task forces and advisory boards. Since then, they’ve provided a platform for such citizen-led neighborhood improvement projects as clean-up days, home and business improvement awards, and tree plantings. They’ve also incubated new leadership in the city.
The Future:In 1992, Burlington purchased a 45-acre parcel of prime undeveloped land located along the shore of Lake Champlain and created a Waterfront Urban Reserve. According to the city’s urban renewal plan, this will “reserve the right for future generations to determine what level of development should occur at this site.” For now, the reserve is open to the public for walking, fishing, biking, quiet contemplation, and periodic art events.
These are just a handful of the lessons from Burlington. Check out the Burlington Legacy Project (http://www.cedo.ci.burlington.vt.us/legacy) to learn more about what is arguably America’s most sustainable community.