Burlington, Vermont – Or Should I Say “Utopialington”

I will be posting some of my learning from the Institute for Global Sustainability at the University of Vermont. I earned a Professional Certificate in Campus Sustainability Leadership. The posts on this blog will be about aspects of the course not related to education directly.

Vermont, and the city of Burlington really impressed me. It is a great university town and they are on the cutting edge of global society with their commitment to sustainabilty. It reminded me of Portland and Seattle, in this regard. The city is an ultra-liberal, “green” state that resonated with my own political and social philosophy. They are way ahead of the game and like California, I feel that they are one of the drivers of where our society is headed. It is much like my favorite university town, Marquette, Michigan, but with a bit more money and New England influence. Many people making political statements all over place and plenty of Volvos and Subarus.

Burlington’s Environmental Specialist, Jennifer Green, came and presented the projects the city is doing. My notes are below. If you don’t want to read the whole post, I will summarize. I was impressed with all of the projects the city does to promote sustainability. Not only regarding fossil fuels reduction, recycling, etc., but what they have done in the human part of sustainability.

Lake Champlain - City Beach

Jennifer Green’s Bio:

Jennifer Green is Burlington’s environmental specialist. She has over 20 years of community development experience, including work on gender equity, national planning, and environmental management with the Peace Corps, CARE International, Chemonics, and the World Resources Institute. Shortly after moving to Burlington in 1999, she consulted with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation and later Efficiency Vermont. In addition to working for the City, Jennifer has taught several environmental and sustainable development courses at the University of Vermont. She has a masters in public adminstration from Columbia University and earned her PhD in environmental sociology from American University in 2005.


My notes from her presentation.

Cities and municipalities now have Sustainability Directors which is just behind the university sector in leading society’s charge towards sustainability. The Sustainability Director for the city of Burlington, Jennifer Greene, came and spoke to us. The first city (over 20 years ago) to have a Director was Portland, and they were way ahead of other cities. This is a growing field and she has 70 colleagues in her network. She is also has strong ties to the economic development office. Burlington is unique in that they have a strong Progressive Party that in the 1980’s, made the Church Street a walking street. The mayor, Peter Clavelle, was a visionary and he is the one responsible for the walking street. He also started the Burlington Legacy Project in 1999. This was the first comprehensive sustainability legacy plan. The key to the success was that he called in many different sectors like the business community, city government, and the universities.

When the plan was formed, they were concerned about the “big box” stores in Williston as well as trying to keep housing affordable. The city is divided into 7 wards and they have monthly meetings. For example, the big issue in the ward 1 meeting last night, Ms. Greene said, was noise. There is a $500 noise ordinance that now the students collect money at the door for the fine to get around it. The Steering Committee consists of reps from all of the organizations. UVM, K-12 local school district, Fletcher Health (hospital), Main Street Landing (developer), United Way (NGO), etc. with 24 members.

The housing issue is huge. With a 1% vacancy rate, and a median house price of $260,000. There is a high poverty rate and they are a refugee center. The city embraces this because they appreciate diversity but there are challenges in the schools and social services. The idea is to get the anchor institutions to fund the process of getting citizens into planning. One of the nicest things the city has done is to put affordable housing on prime lake view property. They view the lake views and beach access as a public good and so poor people should have the right for this because they are a “public good.”

When they lost the Price Shopper grocery store, there was a lot of angst because people would have to go on the highway to a big chain grocery store and this would also mean that the dollars going out of town. They decided to move a community-owned Cooperative with locally purchased food and it is now the largest and most profitable coop in the USA. The population of Burlington is steady at 42,000, which is about a gain of 2,000 people in 50 years. There is a debate on growth and some want to keep it as it is and others feel they need to grow to keep the economy vital.

When using student interns, it is important to tie it to a grade. Also, the ones that come in with a complaint are a great source of work. They also have a town meeting each year, the big takeaway was the poor quality food in local schools. It went to 50,000 pounds of local food, salads bars, composts in all schools and the food director is a nationally wanted speaker. The city has remained steady in electricity use from the 1980’s despite computers, microwaves, televisions in every room, etc.

The city also has a Climate Action Plan. With the severe flooding this year, the bike path and 700 homes were lost. This is part of the “climate adaptation” plan they are doing.


Vermont Organic Farming

During the Sustainability Course we visited the the Intervale Center here in Burlington. Pictured above is Dr. Tom Hudspeth, a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont. The university is supporting the work of the Intervale Center. Intervale basically trains and financially helps people get into organic farming. Many UVM students have moved into organic farming as a career. They also are into river habitat restoration and they also have a community gardening.

Nadia and I were very influenced by Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and he featured the farm and farms like that in his book. It is part of a larger movement to bring back small farms and move away from the large agro-business model of fruits and veggies that supply the big supermarket chains. When Burlington’s big supermarket left a few years ago, they were able to form a cooperative market that is now the envy of the high-end supermarkets, all Burlington-owned and operated.

Menu for the Community Farmers' Market

I loved the idea of the community garden where people can buy shares or rent plots to use. They then have access to the weekly market. It is a slow food movement which of knowing where your food comes from. We had some long discussions on the viability of farming as a career. I like to see small farming coming back.

Što Te Nema? (Why Aren’t You Here?)


On my first evening in Burlington, Vermont, I decided go for a walk on Church Street. This is the “walking street” of the city and has many shops, restaurants, etc. and besides the waterfront, it is the most popular tourist area. While ambling down the street, I swore I heard people speaking Serbian. It turned out to be a group of Bosnians and University of Vermont students and employees who were putting together the monument you see above.

The coffee cups are filled with Bosnian coffee and are placed on the ground. Each cup represents one of the victims of the Srebenica, Bosnia, massacre which took place on July 11, 1994. The cups are collected by Bosnian women organizations as well as the artist herself who originally conceived the project.

I arrived while they were just starting to pick up. They didn’t notice my Red Star t-shirt in Cyrillic script. Monday marked the 17th anniversary of the sad event. I snapped a few photos and continued my walk. The massacre has been in the news a lot recently with the arrest of General Mladic.