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The City of Burlington Goes To The Head of the Class in Implementing Natural Climate Solutions

Last updated on February 2nd, 2024

In Burlington, Vermont, packs of kids from Champlain Elementary School fan out to local parks gathering acorns, ash samaras, and birch seed. They’re taking the problem of climate action into their own hands.

Everyone knows that trees are good for cities and good for our climate, but most cities need good locations to plant trees and sources of nursery trees for urban reforestation projects are in short supply. The solution? Simple, grow the trees yourself right on the elementary school grounds! In addition to oak, ash and birch, the children gather red osier, silk, and gray dogwood berries. This spring they also started growing trees in a “stick garden,” taking cuttings of willow, dogwood, and high bush cranberry and directly propagating them in the ground. Altogether, the students are cultivating 15 species, hundreds of individual trees and bushes—some will grow up on the school grounds and many others will be available for planting at other schools and parks.

This work is happening because of the unanimous passage by Burlington’s city council of a Nature-Based Climate Solutions (NBCS) plan. A huge and growing body of scientific evidence makes it clear that nature protection is not just good for stabilizing the climate —it’s the most cost-effective, important, and inescapable requirement for successfully slowing the heating of our cities and planet. Indeed, one study revealed that we can remove an additional 18% of the nation’s current greenhouse gas emissions, just by restoring and responsibly managing our forests, farms, ranches, grasslands, and wetlands. 

The plan has opened the way for numerous parts of the city government and local non-profit organizations to work together, supporting practical, inclusive actions such as growing much-needed trees while allowing children, from across a racial and socioeconomic spectrum, to have meaningful nature connection and agency around climate action. Of course these hard-working kids have some help—a partnership between Burlington’s school district, the city’s parks department, the Intervale Center (a local non-profit), Burlington Wildways partners, and the Grow Wild initiative is helping to make their tree nursery possible.

The partnership has allowed the tree project to thrive and no one partner could do the work alone. The city’s parks department waters trees over the summer, and provides supplies—while working with the school district’s grounds and maintenance staff to make sure that plans are workable. And, when many of the tree seeds failed in the first season, staff from the Intervale Center, which runs a conservation nursery, stepped in to troubleshoot and teach students and their teachers how to properly collect and start seeds of a variety of local and native species. 

The campus of the school has transformed from a large, mowed grass lot to areas that are in active production of carbon-sequestering native trees. Students also started a wildlife corridor using their campus to connect nearby woods that grow on one edge of the school to a small patch of forest on the other side of the school grounds.

Plus, trees growing in the campus nursery will be transplanted this fall for stream-bank restoration work on an impaired polluted stream that runs along the edge of the school campus before it empties into nearby Lake Champlain. Importantly, these trees are adapted to their place; they have local genetics and were not grown in pots with fertilizer before being trucked halfway across the country. The only transportation needed: strong arms and legs.

This tree work happening at Champlain Elementary School is just one of many areas where Burlington’s Nature-based Climate Solutions Plan aims to have an impact. The NBCS plan is organized into six theme areas: urban forests and tree canopies; water and wetlands; lawns, fields, and small open spaces; agriculture and community gardens; green infrastructure; and an overarching theme of equity, inclusion, and relationships. Burlington’s NBCS plan includes an implementation matrix that emphasizes the importance of community and departmental collaboration to achieve the city’s new climate mitigation, adaptation, and equity goals.

Now the city’s overall climate action efforts can be supported not only through its bold and ambitious Net Zero Energy Roadmap but also through its commitment to natural climate solutions.

To advance this nature-based work, Burlington is drawing on national and local networks, including the Nature-Based Climate Solutions Initiative (NCS), Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), the Trust for Public Land, and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Masters of the Environment (MENV) Program. This network is continuously growing as new allies are identified, bringing together a powerful coalition of dedicated city champions, community leaders, graduate student researchers, climate professionals, and local activists committed to developing best practices for climate action.

With help from these partners and the NBCS plan, leaders in Burlington have started to quantify some of the benefits of the city’s natural assets and plan for the future. For example, according to American Forests’ Tree Equity Score tool, the urban tree canopy across the city stands at 42%. A recent analysis of the city’s tree canopy, using iTree Software, reveals that these trees sequester enough carbon to equal the removal of 450 cars from the road for a year, and these benefits will increase as the canopy increases. Additionally, the canopy is able to remove 26,500 pounds of air pollutants and avoid 43 million gallons of stormwater runoff each year, collectively reducing health incidences for residents and creating a healthier natural environment.

Trees excel at reducing the urban heat island effect, extreme heat mortality, and heat stress. An upcoming urban forest plan for Burlington will start to quantify the benefits of urban cooling provided by the canopy. The city aims to increase tree canopy, with a focus on tree equity. Areas of the city with the least coverage by tree canopy have the highest priority for tree plantings. And with support from the Arbor Day Foundation, a surge in tree plantings took place over the past three years across three city wards. The project focused on planting trees on streets with no greenbelt and in city parks with low shade cover, utilizing large planters to increase tree survival. Over the past three years, this project has planted 360 trees.

There are many more ways that nature-based climate action is at work in Burlington including: extensive regenerative agriculture and community gardening programs; backyard and park native habitat restoration; additional urban tree nurseries beyond the new one at Champlain Elementary; an advanced street tree program; riparian and wetland restoration and regeneration work; neighborhood-based food forests; invasive species removal and pollinator habitat enhancements.

Behind this work can be found a unique mix of nonprofits, an innovative school district, and two local government park entities working side-by-side—all working together to secure the city’s “triple bottom line” of social, economic and ecological thriving in Burlington, in the face of dramatically warming temperatures.

As Burlington embraces nature-based solutions, city leaders are creating a future prioritizing the safety and health of both people and the environment in the face of climate change. Burlington’s Nature-based Climate Solutions Plan serves as an example for municipalities across the country that are interested in tackling local impacts of climate change. With approximately 30,000 incorporated cities in the United States, city governments are a catalyst for continued climate action — with the potential to offset emissions from millions of cars; provide local cooling through evapotranspiration under the shade of trees and urban forests; and giving the next generation tools, motivation, and hope for a livable and bright future.

Zoe Richards is the Director of Burlington Wildways, Chair, Burlington Conservation Board

Melissa Hunter is a Graduate Student Consultant with the Masters of the Environment Program at the University of Colorado Boulder

Taj Schottland is Associate Director of National Climate Program at Trust for Public Land