City Systems Come to Life

After a few weeks into our second semester, it’s clear that the daily routines of Burlington City & Lake Semester have begun to feel familiar. Morning meeting, circle, and student-led contributions (such as documenting, and curating “news of the day”) feel natural. The thing that still feels new is the unique learning environment BCL provides. Already, we have worked with more community partners than one could list here. But the common theme, the through-line that carries throughout our early explorations, is already alive: Our learning is about place, and the systems that intersect with real-world issues and the people who live here.


Luis Vivanco, an Anthropology professor from UVM, helped kick off our semester by inviting us into the wild social experiment that the leadership of Antanas Mockus brought to Bogotá, Colombia. In a city rife with problems, what should we not take for granted? What if things we assume are “common sense” are neither common, nor sensical?

Replacing traffic cops with mimes in Bogotá. Photo credit: Beautiful Rising –

We brought this same open-minded spirit to our early forays into city systems. At City Market, the BCL group met with professionals from the Co-op, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, the Intervale Community Farm, Hunger Free Vermont, and the University of Vermont. Our conversation was side-ranging, but it pulled back the curtain on the source, quality, distribution, and equity of food in our community.

Mae Quilty gives us a (literal) overview of the South End store.
Abby talks with UVM Agro-entomologist, Vic Izzo.
Sharing a meal with our community partners.
Exploring the food scene in the Old North End.

Next, we turned our attention to housing systems. Similar to food, housing is immediately relevant to everyone, and yet few high school students (and few adults!) fully understand its complex dynamics. Together with Leslie Black-Plumeau, from VHFA, we unpacked the financial constraints faced by a wide spectrum of Burlington residents. We defined “affordable housing,” and investigated the myriad forces that impact its availability. We also explored the role of government, non-profits and the private sector. All of this set the stage for a robust afternoon with Erik Hoekstra, from Redstone, a key player in a number of recent and current housing developments in town. Erik took us on a deep dive into housing policy, including Burlington’s inclusionary zoning statute and the complexity of our city zoning map.


That zoning map took on a completely new meaning after our time at UVM Special Collections. Ably led by archivist and librarian, Prudence Doherty, students used historical maps (from 1798-1971), postcards, and ephemera to trace the evolution of transportation in the city. Over the span of time that our artifacts encompassed, we imagined Burlington’s horses, canal boats, steamships, trains, trolleys, buses, and bikes. (We also had an invitation to history-altering events, such as the moment in 1929 when the last trolley was burned as thousands gathered in City Hall Park.)

It’s easy to burn the trolleys when you own the trolley company–and the buses that are soon to replace them. Photo credit: VT Digger –
Prudence Doherty and transportation planner, Peggy O’Neil-Vivanco, invite students to explore Burlington in 1890.
“Boiled Mutton Stew?” That’s what the Ticonderoga menu says. (Still complaining about BHS’ lunch?)

Throughout this deep dive into the systems of the city, this semester’s BCL group is also staying connected to the pulse of this place, thanks to the Vermont Folklife Center. Through a multi-week partnership, BCL students are learning about collaborative ethnography, oral histories, long-form interviewing, and sound editing. It’s a way of bringing residents’ authentic voices and lived experiences into our learning. It’s also a powerful way to be reminded, daily, that the systems we are studying affect real people.

BCL students use “vox pops”–on-the-street interviews–to tap into the beliefs and values of people on Church Street.
Coming back from a walk in the Old North End, we saw Mary and Trish, our Vermont Folklife partners, “working” at a local bakery.

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