Throughout the process of interim zoning — not only in its final phase — it is completely reasonable that housing and land conservation have been dealt with together as city government seeks to establish a coherent policy in line with its planning goals: affordable and community strong; walkable, green and clean; and opportunity oriented.
So, it’s confounding when members of the public and councilors treat land conservation and housing as polar opposites, as though they are competing with one another. If we enter into this line of thinking, we will miss the opportunities before us and fail to reach any of our goals. Our residents depend on one just as much as they depend on the other. They are building blocks, and without the foundation, which is our land, the entire structure falls.
In the face of climate change, we can no longer ignore what is required of us in order to provide an affordable, strong and resilient, opportunity-oriented community for future generations. This is our generation’s moment of opportunity as we learn — without a doubt — that the destruction of natural landscapes is accelerating changes and lowering our resiliency to a crisis point. One-hundred-year floods are now happening every 20 years, and without actively rethinking our land use patterns and allowed uses — particularly in flood zones and on clay-rich soils — and investing in renewable energy sources, floods will become more frequent and more powerful.
In addition to being green and clean, another of South Burlington’s goals is to be walkable. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, most households in South Burlington own two cars, and only a small percentage of South Burlington residents do not own a car. The comprehensive plan specifies that our neighborhoods are, however, specifically designed to be walkable.
As the first mixed-use area in South Burlington, so is our City Center. The plan identifies the Kimball Avenue, Old Farm Road and Kennedy Drive area as another mixed-use and walkable opportunity zone, “with professional employment opportunities. … closely tied to a walkable downtown with services, retailers, restaurants and housing.”
Some would have this replicated throughout the city. However, if we choose to disregard the role played by the natural infrastructure in some areas, not only will it get hotter, but also our built infrastructure will retain and reflect more heat.
Due to the construction materials of our buildings and roads, built-up cities like neighboring Burlington retain heat, and hotter air holds more moisture. A recent study cited Burlington as a heat island, more than 7 degrees hotter than surrounding areas, and it is ranked 13th out of 158 cities, just behind Baltimore. So, when the thermometer reads 80 degrees, in Burlington it feels like 87. How does this work? Since buildings and roads retain and reflect heat, when there is little green space to absorb it or provide shade, cooler nighttime temps are not able to cool the air, which makes for warm nights, leading to more heat the next day.
Air conditioning units compound the heat index by adding to the air temperatures. As temperatures soar into the high 80s and above, high humidity at these temperatures make for increasingly difficult conditions for us humans since we cannot sweat to cool off our bodies, and overheating leads to death.
According to our state climatologist Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, an invited speaker at the joint city council and planning commission meeting in early August, the upward limit beyond which our bodies suffer is 87 degrees. She also pointed out that the Green Mountains act as a barrier to air flow, which makes our valley prone to smog (ozone), especially dangerous to people with respiratory illnesses like asthma. Combine that with increased humidity and you’ve got stressed bodies, walking or not.
Land use needs to be thought of as both: That is, we can both build homes and preserve our essential natural infrastructure, with the needed capacity for CO2 absorption, temperature regulation and natural stormwater filtration, making our homes and businesses less susceptible to flooding and saving us millions of dollars per year.
By maintaining our green infrastructure, we become resilient, save money and can sustain a diverse community.
If we wish to be community strong and provide quality homes for our residents of all ages and income brackets, we clearly need to think about what kind of land use best suits which area and plan accordingly.
Interim zoning has allowed the council and planning commission to do just that. We have identified the areas in South Burlington containing the most important natural infrastructure — our lungs and water filtration systems, linked to natural habitats and ecosystems.
The responsible thing — and the prime opportunity of our time — is to plan for its preservation by siting housing elsewhere in our city so that it does not encroach on this asset, which cost us nothing but benefits us many times over. I encourage our community to reach for our goals and demonstrate that we are opportunity-oriented. The time is now.