During the 1980s and early 90s, many cities saw their social and economic woes grow worse as the federal government stepped back from economic planning, human services, and affordable housing. Increasingly, suburban sprawl and the globalization of our economy threatened the sustainability of communities everywhere. Forced to take up the slack, to do more with less, and to confront challenges from far beyond their borders, many local governments found that they could do little to arrest community decline or promote economic development.
Burlington, Vermont, was one of a small number of cities that bucked this trend. In Burlington, an activist municipal government – working in partnership with citizens, the private sector, and a network of municipally supported nonprofit organizations – pursued a strategy for sustainable development 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.
Principles of Sustainable Development
In the 80s, Burlington adopted six public policies or principles to guide our efforts at sustainable community development. These principles continue to be applied today, and are flexible enough to be applicable to communities around the world.
First of all, we have committed to encouraging economic self-sufficiency through local ownership and the maximum use of local resources. The city’s recent decision to select 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.
We have also sought to equalize the benefits and burdens of growth. Burlington’s adoption of an inclusionary zoning regulation, for instance, which requires affordable units in new housing developments, ensures that housing growth benefits lower-income citizens.
Leveraging and recycling scarce public funds is our third principle for sustainability. 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.
We recognize the importance of protecting and preserving fragile environmental resources. This principle stands at the heart of sustainable development. Our long-term economic vitality is dependent upon environmental health. Measures that Burlington has implemented to protect our environment include energy efficiency measures, an active recycling program, and a major upgrade to our wastewater treatment facilities (at $54 million, the largest environmental protection project ever in Vermont).
In addition, we are committed to ensuring full participation by populations normally excluded from the political and economic mainstream. One of the ways we’ve put this commitment into action is Step-up for Women, a program that trains women in the construction trades. And we’ve adopted a law requiring that women be part of the workforce on publicly financed construction projects.
Last, but particularly important, we seek to nurture a robust "third sector" of private, nonprofit organizations capable of working in concert with government to deliver essential services. 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. Founded in 1984 as the first municipally funded community land trust in the country, our land trust has grown into the nation’s largest – with more than 1550 voting members and a portfolio of over 450 units of perpetually affordable housing and community facilities.
Burlington’s Legacy Project
While these policies guide our economic development efforts and numerous city programs, we know we need to do more to develop a strong local economy, protect our environment, and build a more livable city. In recent years, we became keenly aware of the need to establish a widespread understanding of how individual projects connect and to develop a vision for our future that is embraced by the entire community. We also recognized the need to engage our youth in shaping what Burlington will look like when they grow up. And, we acknowledged that governing in a democracy should be about more than charting a course based on a vote every few years. Democratic government ought to involve ongoing dialogue with constituents who view themselves, not simply as taxpayers or clients of government, but as true citizens, participants in the process of governance.
Given all these considerations, we initiated the Burlington Legacy Project to encourage our whole community to think systematically about our future, and to come together to develop a vision for Burlington in the year 2030. Over the past several months, working closely with the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities in facilitating the process, the Legacy Project team has gathered ideas from thousands of citizens. A diverse 25-member steering committee has drafted a community vision and an action plan. As of this writing, we are holding a series of public hearings on various aspects of the plan, culminating in a final citywide public hearing in March 2000. Once adopted, the plan will guide city policy and decision-making for years to come.
Through the Burlington Legacy Project and our ongoing commitment to development that meets the needs of the present without diminishing resources for future needs, our entire community is working to make our city a better place – for our children and their children.
Peter Clavelle is now serving his fifth term as mayor of the City of Burlington. He chairs the board of the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities.