Spotlight on Sustainability: Burlington, VT gets creative with its comprehensive plan

Downtown Burlington, VT.

Burlington, VT’s new comprehensive plan, PlanBTV, looks more like a magazine than a technical planning document. Based on extensive community input, the plan establishes a clear and comprehensive vision for how Burlington’s downtown and core neighborhoods should continue to evolve.

Burlington is located at the heart of the largest urbanized area in Vermont, and is the region’s principal economic and cultural engine. It is home to the University of Vermont and major employers including Burton Snowboards and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. When City leaders began considering how and where the city should grow in coming years, they knew they would need a plan to make sure that growth benefitted the community as much as possible.

Then, in 2010, the City of Burlington won a $286,750 Community Challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant would help Burlington to develop a comprehensive plan for the city’s Downtown and Waterfront districts—an extensive process that would take over a year to complete.

“The Community Challenge grant allowed us to create a truly comprehensive and informed planning process,” said Burlington Planning Director David White. “It helped us effectively engage the community in a meaningful way. The plan would never have happened without that grant.”

Burlington, VT detail
A detail from PlanBTV, mapping how residents want downtown to feel.

White and his fellow City leaders looked to Burlington’s residents for guidance, and kicked off an 18-month public input period to inform the plan. Residents came together at public hearings, through public art contests and through a unique web-based tool which allowed them to provide direct feedback on the plan. Over 1,400 residents eventually registered online, submitting 672 ideas and comments and casting over 45,000 votes. In total, over 2,000 residents, business owners and elected officials came together for this collaborative planning process.

“Burlington’s citizens are highly engaged, and there is a lot of planning and public process to occupy people,” said White. “Our concern was that the community would be fatigued by yet another planning process and tune it out. Our challenge was to keep thinking outside the box, and keep the process fun and engaging.”

The resulting PlanBTV lays out a productive and sustainable future for the Burlington region, and incorporates land use, transportation, urban design, and public infrastructure. Today, the plan itself is complete and Burlington has already starting putting it into action. Some of the projects already underway include a study to relocate rail lines to support expansion of the street grid, zoning changes, development of a form based code and streetscape improvements.

Burlington’s Community Challenge grant was funded through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to help communities improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options, and lower transportation costs while promoting sustainable practices.

Want to see more projects like PlanBTV? Tell your members of Congress to support these programs today.