Burlington, Vt.: Green Is Just How It’s Done

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Burlington, Vt., is located on the shores of Lake Champlain.
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The Intervale Center helps set a national standard for local food systems.

Each year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS selects a handful of sustainable communities to highlight in our annual Great Places feature. Check out the other towns featured in our 2014 installment:8 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.

Burlington, Vermont. If one community could serve as poster child for the core values we write about in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Burlington would be it. Organic gardening, self-sufficiency, an involved community, renewable energy and a commitment to health are how Burlington rolls. Its vibrant local food system is central to the city, and at the heart of that food system is the Intervale Center.

“Intervale” is a term for the low ground between hills, often bottomland enriched by overflow from creeks and rivers. In the 1980s, an intervale tract of more than 700 acres within the city limits had become a dangerous, inhospitable place. Historically productive fields sat abandoned and people were using the land primarily as a dumping ground.

Will Raap, founder of Gardener’s Supply Company, led an effort to restore the area and return it to its agricultural roots. Community members hauled off garbage, rebuilt depleted soils and gradually transformed the land to its present condition as a healthy agricultural and recreational resource for Burlington. The Intervale Center now stewards 350 acres of this land, and Raap’s vision of an agricultural oasis that could feed Burlington’s citizens has become a reality.

“Burlington is uniquely lucky to have the vast green expanse of farmland within the city limits,” says Travis Marcotte, executive director of the Intervale Center. “For 25 years, we’ve been building a community food system, modeling how to incubate new farms and develop farm-related businesses, how to market agricultural products and care for the land, how to develop farm-to-school and farm-to-table programs.”

Marcotte says the Vermont Agency of Agriculture has steadfastly supported the development of this strong food system, carrying out its mission to protect the “working landscape” as the backbone of Vermont’s economy. For more on statewide initiatives in Vermont addressing environmental health and community resilience, read Vermont Leads the Way on GMO Labeling, Worker-Owned Cooperatives and Sustainable Population.

The Intervale was largely responsible for creating the lively local food scene in Burlington, and now the entire city is experiencing  an explosion of innovation by chefs and brewers. Food Truck Fest offers a re-imagined “truck stop” where residents can gather for craft brews or locally roasted coffees on Friday nights while local musicians perform and artists show their work. In winter, the festivities move indoors to ArtsRiot, an arts-and-culture incubator that features different chefs throughout the week, as well as cooking demonstrations, live music, dance parties and art exhibits.

Burlington is home to the University of Vermont, and the region offers a wide variety of outdoor activities, thanks to beaches along the banks of Lake Champlain within the city limits as well trails for biking, hiking and cross-country skiing, sledding and snow-boarding.

The Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, an international consulting firm that focuses on reducing the environmental and economic impact of energy use, is one of Burlington’s largest employers. A local business, CarShare Vermont, provides a network of Toyota Prii and Honda Fits parked conveniently throughout Burlington. For a small fee, members can use a car for an hour, or take one out for a day trip into the mountains.

A relatively new community resource is the Front Porch Forum, a Web-based communication tool, where people sign up by neighborhood and post about everything from lost cats to local politics. More than two-thirds of Burlington neighborhoods are connected via FPF, and the network is expanding throughout Vermont.

Stats: Burlington, Vermont

Population: 42,282
Climate: 37” annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 30 degrees F; July avg. high: 79 degrees F
Median Household Income: $43,135
Median Home Price: $259,500

K.C. Compton is an editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publication, GRIT. She has visited 44 U.S. states, and sees great places and meets great people everywhere she goes. Find her on Google+.

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