Getting There

When we study the systems of the City of Burlington the core question is always about ‘thriving:’ What does it take for a community to thrive?  And without always explicitly stating it, the question is about sustainability. A community can’t thrive if it’s not sustaining the thriving.  To understand many of the aspects of sustainability, we begin with the framework of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals

As we launched into exploring Burlington’s energy and transportation/mobility systems, we were able to consider these 17 world goals, and apply them to how these systems work (or don’t work) right here at home.  

As a warm-up before our conversation about Burlington’s energy future, 
students prioritized the U.N. SDGs.
Burlington Director of Sustainability, Jen Green, helps us understand what sustainability means…
and how our city might actually get there.

When I looked at data about Burlington’s emissions and trends from 2007 to 2013, I was surprised to learn that we’ve trended in a positive direction, with less emissions each year. This surprised me because this topic was titled “energy issues”, so I thought that our emissions would be worsening. Next, I read a WCAX article highlighting the city’s climate change goals. “Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, and other city leaders unveiled a plan to reduce all of the city’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 through its Net Zero Energy Roadmap.” This made me realize that any emissions are bad, so even if they were trending downwards, we still need to work to eliminate them completely. It is reassuring to know that I live in a place that prioritizes the planet’s health and actively works to eliminate emissions, but even that isn’t enough. We all live on one planet, so every city and state and country needs to work together to preserve our planet, and it is scary knowing that we really don’t. 


Something I’ve thought about since our discussion about renewable energy with Jen Green is “What will it take for the U.S and even the world to live off of reusable energy?” Through this expo response I’m going to try and see how we can accomplish this goal. I think the best way to start is by seeing what our options are: Hydro, Wind, Bio, and Solar. The McNeil Plant is one of Burlington’s best contributors towards our renewable energy goal. They take wood chips from logging residue and turn it into energy. It takes about 76 tons of wood chips for the whole city of Burlington to have the amount of energy it needs. I think Vermont is doing a great job of striving to keep the green mountains green but other states can definitely be following our lead to hopefully ensure that someday we will stop using non renewable fuels like fossil fuels, gas, etc.


I had heard of it but never really thought about it. I wrote down some questions in my journal- “How is burning wood renewable? Is this wood all waste that would be going to landfills anyways? Doesn’t burning wood produce greenhouse gasses?” I did not understand how burning a natural resource could be renewable. Jen Green assured us that the wood burned was all waste wood and they use it at the same rate that it is replenished. Wood isn’t wasted, and no greenhouse gasses are produced, just steam. This brought up another question: Is the heat produced from the plant wasted? Could it be used for something? Jen had emphasized that making heating in Burlington more sustainable was one of their main goals. How could the McNeil plant help make this goal a reality? The Politico Magazine article about Burlington helped answer this question. Woodward explained a plan to use this heat,  “an ambitious plan to pipe the McNeil station’s waste heat to warm downtown buildings and City Hall’s goal to be a net zero consumer of energy within 10 years starts looking achievable.” This struck me as an awesome and inventive idea. Although steam is not harmful to the environment, as opposed to greenhouse gasses, it could be used to make our city even more sustainable. 

Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco, from the UVM Transportation Research Center, lays out the goals of our “mobility challenge.” 
Strollers? Crutches? Walkers? 
“Just getting onto the bus was a struggle.” – Ethan
What would it take to make transportation easy and accessible for everyone? 

With COVID pressures and prices of things going up, I can see a lot of more people leaning towards public transportation. That leaves me with a question: “Is CCTA ready?”  The buses have been free which brings more people on, but I wonder how it’s going to change once they shift back to requiring payment. I have noticed prices of a lot of things going up, so does that mean when they do bring back paying for rides is it going to be more than it was before? 


Taking a closer look at the transportation in Burlington, and looking for inequalities our class went out on Burlington buses to see what it would be like if you had a disability such as crutches, or if you were carrying a baby in a stroller. Our class quickly realized that riding the bus with these types of disabilities made getting around the city much harder and much less safe. Just getting onto the bus was a struggle. For our community to fully thrive we need to incorporate a transportation system that suits everyone’s needs and not just the needs of able bodied people.


Something we discussed in class really got me thinking – Disability is something everyone has experienced–or will experience in their life–even if it’s temporary. How come, even then, people don’t want to change society to help everybody? To me, it shows the worst side of American culture which is indifference towards the struggles of others. Why are we so resistant to change if it doesn’t directly affect us positively? The general culture tends to be that we make life easiest for the “average” white, straight, cis man and everyone else can work around that system. That’s the way it’s always been – it started the day colonizers set foot on Native soil. How do you reverse systems with such a firm grasp on America?

At the old BHS site, Peggy challenged us to imagine a transportation design that would prioritize people.
“Mobility challenge?” How about we increase the challenge level? 
Students explore City Hall Park’s universal design

I am learning that the general transportation systems in the US are drastically different from European transportation systems. As I look for colleges in the Netherlands, I am considering how I will get around without a car. Fortunately, they have a strong public transportation system that is especially accessible to students. The bus system here is not great, as we realized on our trip to BHS… Compact cities are generally very walkable, however the housing crisis in Burlington can prevent people from being able to live close to where they often need to travel, which increases their use of cars or buses. Essentially, cities need to be designed to fit the needs of people without assuming everyone has access to cars. Carlos Moreno explains, “We need to rethink cities around the four guiding principles that are the key building blocks to a 15 minute city. First, ecology: for a green and sustainable city. Second, proximity: To live with reduced distance to other activities. Third, solidarity: to create links between people. Finally, participation should actively involve citizens in the transformation of their neighborhood.” A city made based on these principles would thrive in many ways.


Making sure that everyone in a city has what they need is one way to design for everyone. The other way is to design for the oldest and youngest in the community. This concept was one Peggy O’Neill brought to us during our walk and bus around Burlington. This idea basically means that if you design a city to work for very very little kids and for the oldest people in the community, everyone will have what they need. Safety and accessibility will be at the forefront of the design. From everything I have heard and learned about over the past week, I think to design for everyone is to just think, ‘is this a place I would want to spend time at with my baby and my grandma? Would it be hard to get around? Would it be an enjoyable time for everyone?’

The Mayor told us that the city’s “Great Streets Initiative” is all in the hands of the voters.
Students consult with Stephen Gray and Yona Chung from Grayscale Collaborative and Senior Public Works Engineer, Laura K. Wheelock on the future of Main Street as a “Great Street.”

BHS has bike racks, but they are at the bottom of the school, far away from the front entrance, or under a walkway, both options are a little unappealing.  When I watched the video of the Dutch students biking to school, the bike racks looked orderly, neat, new, and as if they were a priority for the school.  They were jam packed by the end, a sign of high usage and high desirability.  The racks were in a nice courtyard overlooked by the big windows of the school, as if they were being shown off, it looked pleasant.  When designing the new BHS building, this is something I would like to be a priority for the school.


We need easier ways for people who don’t own a car or don’t have other ways to get around the city. For example, in Colombia one city bans cars and motorcycles from moving around the city during Sundays and holidays they claim that “the inhabitants of the car-choked, noise-filled, stressed-out city of Bogotá, 8,660 feet up in the thin air of the Andes, get to feel that the city belongs to them, and not to the 1,600,000 suicidal private cars, 50,000 homicidal taxis, nine thousand gasping buses, and some half-million demented motorcycles that otherwise pack into the buzzing capital of Colombia.” People gather together during what they call the Bicycle way or Ciclovia, and do fun stuff together like biking around the city, cooking, eating , listening to music and dancing. They do fun things together and they try as hard as possible to reduce air pollution. Just wow, I can’t imagine how much that would be like or look like if this happened in Burlington. 


In my BCL journal, I came across the page of notes about transportation systems I took when we took a trip to the old BHS. Peggy made us go with some kind of disability, whether that was crutches or even just pushing a stroller. The point Peggy was trying to prove was it can be very hard for people with disabilities/disadvantages to get around, and it’s the city’s fault. The city is flawed in it’s design, little things like bus stops, curbs near bus stops, etc. They all make a difference in the transportation system. In a video I watched about transportation, Carlos Moreno said “Our acceptance of the dysfunctions and indignities of modern cities has reached a peak.” I agree with this because as a city, I would definitely say we don’t care enough to try to resolve these flaws in the transportation system. In my notebook I stated that “With transportation, and energy, the best way to make it work is to be thinking about everyone in the system. I looked at a model of an ideal city that focused on Shared Use Mobility, and I think we can make it work if we cared enough.


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