Sunday, March 1, 2015

Burlington 2050: Thinking Beyond

Greg's opening remarks for the Arts Riot Mayoral Forum, Feb. 27, 2015

Thirty-five years into the future? That’s a long time… as long as Marty McFly went in Back to the Future. … or, as long ago as when Bernie Sanders first ran for mayor. So, let’s imagine…

By 2050, the city has certainly grown – but not as much as many other places. For a while it did. But by 2030 there were almost 60,000 city residents; it was beginning to feel cramped. Then someone from New York proposed building a Heliport at the airport to ferry visitors to waterfront resort destinations. People said, no way! After that, limits were placed on new construction.

Visitors often wonder how we did it without going broke. But it wasn’t rocket science or Tax Incremental Financing. For one thing, it was more money from the 46 percent of local land that was tax exempt. We also protected what worked and got creative. For an orientation, let’s visit the museum. Not the Fleming. We have a City Museum now, out on North Avenue, a short hop by PTN to the entrance of what was once the high school.

Pine Street corridor, from VDQ, publication of the Vermont Design Institute in Burlington

What’s PTN? Well, transportation changed radically, here and everywhere. High-mileage cars fueled by clean energy were part of it. But fewer people need them now, especially in the city. To get here many visitors take the New York to Montreal line, which stops at the transit hub. Once here, about a third of the population bikes regularly; there are free bikes at the hub and other key locations. Another third use some form of public or private "post-oil economy" transit. Many of us use PTN – that’s the Personal Transit Network – a fleet of small, lightweight “pods” that carry groups directly to their destinations. In 2015 the first PTN system (known elsewhere as Personal Rapid Transit) was being tested in West Virginia.

Back to the museum. It’s actually a public education center that combines changing displays on local history, art, environment and culture; a multi-media public library; video, Internet and TV facilities run by Burlington Telecom; the home of the Burlington Workforce Training Center; and a great outdoor space near the lake for concerts and picnics. There’s also a child care center, part of a decentralized network developed privately with city support.

As the effects of climate change intensified, Vermont became even more desirable for people fleeing overcrowded cities, or displaced by rising water and extreme weather. But we knew that one of the secrets of our success is our size – we're small – and the ability to make the best use of our resources. Somehow we found a safe path – sustainability and carefully managed growth.

After the “Heliport Revolt,” there was a renaissance of interest in self-sufficiency and keeping things in human scale. Ordinance and charter changes allowed for more homesteading. Due to the high-energy cost and questionable quality of corporate agriculture, Vermont passed the Food Self-Sufficiency Act in 2025, setting the stage for the re-purposing of land across the state to produce as much food as possible to provide a healthy diet for all Vermonters. At times, the sound of “backyard farms” makes it seem more like the past than the future.

Before we leave, let’s stop downtown. Still a commercial gem, it looks a bit different. Eight to 12 story apartment blocks have been added to the skyline, as well as the resort hotel on the waterfront, finally completed in 2030. But for the last 20 years Burlington has focused more on opening up space than building over it. Another focus is finding new uses for old structures. Like Memorial Auditorium, one of several high schools. But like other education facilities, it’s more than that: it’s also a place for weddings, celebrations, job training at night, and political debate – an emblem of community life.

Does it sound like an expensive place to live? It was for a while. But when studio apartments downtown hit $2,000 a month people demanded control of the market. Now there’s HAB – the Housing Affordability Board, which reviews rental increases, landlord expenses and tenant complaints about unjustified rent hikes.

I’m almost out of time. Let me just say, not everything has changed. People still disagree about issues like public health, water quality, and the cost of living. Some think there are too many yachts on the lake. Others say we're missing out by staying small. But more people are involved in community life, because more of it revolves around neighborhoods. Technological has continued to connect us with the world and each other in amazing ways. But we’ve also realized what being a beautiful, livable city means – human scale and mutual support, preserving nature and cultivating community.

Somehow we found the right balance.

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