Creating Sustainable Communities: Burlington Builds a Legacy
By Burlington (VT) Mayor Peter Clavelle
August 4, 2003
Burlington's activist municipal government working in partnership with citizens, the private sector, and a network of municipally supported nonprofit organizations has pursued a strategy for sustainable development since before the term was invented. This strategy has involved generating new sources of public revenue, ensuring a publicly controlled waterfront, producing permanently affordable housing, stabilizing residential neighborhoods, reducing energy consumption, requiring the recycling of solid waste, and removing barriers preventing women and minorities from enjoying the fruits of economic growth.
In the 1980s, Burlington adopted six principles to guide our sustainable community development efforts. These principles continue to be applied in Burlington today, and are flexible enough to be applicable to communities around the world. They are:
First, encouraging economic self'sufficiency through local ownership and the maximum use of local resources. The selection of our local food co-op as the operator of a new downtown grocery store to be located on City-owned property is one example of our commitment to this principle. Another is the McNeil Generating Station, which is owned by our municipal electric utility and produces electricity from wood chips, a regionally available and renewable resource. Soon to be adjacent to the McNeil plant is Burlington's Food Enterprise Center, a project that will employ systems thinking to create opportunity and link entrepreneurial green businesses, local farms, energy-efficient food processing, and local food distribution.
Second, equalizing the benefits and burdens of growth. One example has been Burlington's adoption of an inclusionary zoning regulation which requires inclusion of affordable units in new housing developments, thereby ensuring that housing growth benefits lower-income citizens.
Third, leveraging and recycling scarce public funds. One example: Small business incubators take abandoned or under-utilized spaces and, with relatively modest public funding, make them available for new small businesses. The investment is more than recaptured in direct repayment, increased tax base, and increased attraction for other businesses.
Fourth, protecting and preserving fragile environmental resources. This principle is at the heart of sustainable development. Our long term economic vitality is dependent upon environmental health. Measures we have implemented to protect our environment include an ambitious energy efficiency program, an active recycling program, and a major upgrade of our wastewater treatment facilities at $54 million, the largest environmental protection project ever undertaken in the State of Vermont.
Fifth, ensuring full participation by populations normally excluded from the political and economic mainstream. We-ve put this commitment into action through a program that trains women in the construction trades and a law requiring that women be part of the workforce on publicly financed construction projects. Over the past three years, we-ve doubled the numbers of people of color, women in the trades, and people with handicaps in the City's workforce, and we-ve committed to redoubling those numbers over the next five years. We-ve also launched a City-wide series of Study Circles on Racism.
Sixth, nurturing a robust "third sector" of private, nonprofit organizations capable of working in concert with government to deliver essential services. This is particularly important. Collaborations with nonprofit organizations to solve problems or meet social needs have been critical to Burlington's sustainable development efforts. A key City partner for more than 15 years, the Burlington Community Land Trust is a prime example of an effective community-based nonprofit. It was the first municipally funded community land trust in the country when founded in 1984 and has grown to become the nation's largest with more than 2,500 voting members and a portfolio of over 450 units of perpetually affordable housing and community facilities.
Burlington's Legacy Project
While these policies had been guiding our economic development efforts and City programs, we knew we needed to do more to develop a strong local economy, protect our environment, and build a more livable city. Our response, the Burlington Legacy Project, was launched four years ago to encourage our whole community to think systematically about our future, and to bring all sectors of the community together to develop a vision for Burlington in the year 2030.
In May 1999 we formed a diverse, 25-member project steering committee, including leaders from the business, low-income, environmental, academic, youth, and social service sectors of our community. Beginning in August 1999, the Legacy Project team gathered the ideas and hopes of thousands of citizens. We distributed surveys at community events and through hundreds of agencies and organizations. Specific efforts were undertaken to encourage the participation of Burlington youth. We convened numerous focus groups. As themes began to crystallize, we held a series of public hearings on various aspects of the emerging vision and plan. In March of this year, more than 300 citizens came together in a final public hearing. In June, our City Council unanimously adopted the Burlington Legacy Project Action Plan.
Implementation of our Action Plan, now underway, involves dozens of initiatives. Just a few examples include:
- establishment of a plan for increasing the number of alternative-fueled vehicles in the City's fleet;
- adoption of ordinances to enhance enforcement of code and housing standards, as well as the establishment of a comprehensive code enforcement office;
- a commitment by the University of Vermont to build 400 more on-campus beds, as well as to provide technical support for Legacy Plan implementation activities;
- new zoning regulations increasing allowable density in certain neighborhoods;
- adoption of an open space protection plan;
- development of a plan for better coordination of activities of our Community Justice Center, neighborhood mediation program, and efforts to support the creation of neighborhood associations;
- production of "how to" guides and materials to support neighborhood groups;
- appointment of teenaged youths to the Library Board and the committee that allocates the City's CDBG funding; and
- a "Sustainable Strategies in Action" website documenting 77 successful strategies.
Truly sustainable development requires a comprehensive approach, the integration of economic development, environmental protection, and social equity. And, to these three E's, our experience in Burlington has led us to add a fourth education. All of these must be balanced. Building a sustainable community is akin to building a table, where the four legs are the four E's. Each leg must be strong if the table the community is to withstand the test of time.
Sustainability can be a trite, over-used buzzword. It can also be an enormously significant concept for the improvement of our communities and the lives of all our citizens. Our challenge is to define sustainability comprehensively, to talk less, and to act more. I invite you to visit our website www.cedo.ci.burlington.vt.us/legacy/ for details on Burlington's sustainable development strategies.