Burlington, VT: Imagine City Hall Park

Large crowd in City Hall park

Photo courtesy of Burlington City Arts


How can a robust arts-based engagement process help turnaround a neglected public space?

At the geographic and cultural center of Burlington, Vermont, City Hall Park was long a significant civic landscape. Over the years, though, it was neglected and declined into disrepair, becoming the site of an increasing number of criminal incidents. An organization that neighbored the area, Burlington City Arts, developed a masterplan for the park that would revitalize it back into an uplifting space for all residents.


Vermont’s largest city, Burlington is a bustling town of over 40,000 and the home to the University of Vermont. Set on the banks of Lake Champlain, it affords impressive views of the water. At the city center, just four blocks from the lake’s edge on Main Street, Burlington’s City Hall serves as a civic anchor. City Hall Park is an important outdoor community space and sits directly in front of City Hall. It is directly adjacent to two iconic cultural organizations: the Burlington City Arts (BCA) and the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. Nearby, the Church Street Marketplace, a pedestrian mall, provides a site for economic activity.


Over three million people visit Burlington each year, and City Hall Park is a popular destination. But for the year- round community, it is an indispensable part of life in Burlington—and the only greenspace in the downtown core. There are not only many residents who live within walking distance of it, but also downtown employees, business owners, and students who regularly spend much time in nearby areas. Additionally, there are many residents who live further away who regularly come to the district to shop or run errands.


Despite its role as a central public space, the park became neglected over the years and fell victim to aging amenities and failing infrastructure. This impression of neglect (and abandonment?) led to what the city's community members characterized as “disruptive behavior.” Because of its gradual deterioration, the city and neighborhood stakeholders wanted to revitalize the park, but there was not a masterplan in place to help guide collective decision- making about its future. “The park has evolved over time in piecemeal fashion, with well-meaning community groups taking interest in components such as the fountain, or flower gardens, or trees at various times,” explained BCA Executive Director Doreen Kraft. “But underlying issues, like lack of storm water management, electrical infrastructure, and the deterioration of the fountain piping underground were negating all of these good intentions.”


BCA spearheaded an initiative to help create a park masterplan that would make improvements to the park in a systematic way. “We wanted to change the pride that residents, workers, and business owners feel in the downtown through the renovation of a central public space,” said Kraft. Not only would these improvements enhance the look of the space, they would also increase its performance as a civic gathering space, and create an environmental feature by addressing the site’s storm water issues. BCA also wanted to help mitigate truant behavior. “We wanted to change the incidences of poor behavior that leads to police involvement and public discomfort in the space,” explained Kraft, “and we wanted to increase the sense of safety that users felt in the park.” Because it was such a central feature of the city, part of BCA’s vision was a robust community engagement process.


BCA wanted to ensure that the entire Burlington community had a stake in the park’s redesign. As Kraft said, “my responsibility was to ensure that we developed relationships with groups that reflected the diversity of users and the potential diversity of users.” So, she teamed with several critical partners. The City of Burlington was closely involved, providing documentation of existing conditions and data about the space. The Burlington Business Association had a network of members already in place, so it helped with outreach to the business community and with fundraising and marketing. The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts provided support in programming the space, including free performances as part of the Discover Jazz Festival.


Underscoring the emphasis on community involvement, BCA launched the project with a four-month engagement plan that used activities facilitated by artists. The process invited residents to explore what they hoped the park would become, using photography, drawing, and interactive sessions to make the process more creative and engaging. BCA also developed a series of programs—lunchtime concerts, movie screenings, and temporary exhibitions—to help the public “imagine” possibilities for the future park. Working with a selection committee comprised of local business owners, they then hired a landscape architect, H. Keith Wagner Partnership, to translate this community input into an initial design. Once the designs were produced, BCA coordinated a community feedback phase, inviting residents to comment on the proposal. Kraft emphasized the importance of creating a consistent brand identity, especially because of the park’s piecemeal past. Once that was done, she said, “all subsequent events and activities we promoted were tied to the brand.”


The project yielded a 30-year masterplan that will guide decision-making about City Hall Park, enhance accessibility, and create a diversity of year-round programming. Several components of the masterplan have already been implemented, including a banner program advertising upcoming events, alley lighting, and new cultural programming, including a summer concert series and an outdoor sculpture exhibition. The summer concert series with 28 events activates the Park with local performers and welcomes downtown workers and residents to lunch in the park. The series is bolstered by local food vending carts and preschool programs. BCA implemented a rigorous analysis of the different effects the design had on the park. They reported a decreased number of fights and disturbances, with a 33% overall reduction of incidents in the park for the period between May and August in 2012 (98 total incidents in 2012 versus 149 in 2011). There was a reported decrease in alcohol use, increase in patrols, and an increase in positive activities occurring in the park (concerts, events, etc.). Another survey revealed that 38% of respondents felt safer in the park than they had in the past, and that 43% are more likely to spend time in the park since the year before. In 2016, the park will see the next round of substantial infrastructure changes.


The project began a larger conversation about the quality of the built environment in the city and how design contributes to that quality. That conversation has begun to spill over into other city projects. Nearby businesses, too, have been pleased with the change the redesign has effected. Bill Dodge, a St. Paul Street business owner said, “we benefit directly from the public art and cultural programs in the park that increase the number of tourists and citizens attracted to this community space.” Though it can never be guaranteed at the outset, the project provides compelling evidence for the role of art and design in transforming the socioeconomic conditions of a neighborhood. As Dodge remarked, “we see tremendous potential for BCA to promote more broad-based uses of this civic space and to continue expanding the cultural heritage and function of City Hall Park as a town common.”


Imagine City Hall Park
Report on Engagement Sessions for Imagine City Hall Park

Visionaries dream up plans for updated City Hall Park
Burlington Free Press (Feb 12, 2014)

Landscape Plan
Rendered Landscape Plan of park design

A regular banner program has been installed in the park that is sponsored by a local banner company.  The banners are often designed to provide information about events or exhibitions in the park, or showcase Burlington’s accolades and serve as a source of city-pride. 

  • Expanded Festivals — Activities were added in the park for the Festival of Fools (a buskers festival) and the Jazz Festival.
  • Bi-weekly Lunch Time Concerts — A free music series in the park to encourage downtown workers to lunch in the park.
  • Monthly Free Movies — A partnership was created with Vermont International Film Festival to offer Wednesday night movies in the park once a month throughout the summer months.
  • Temporary Sculpture and Lighting Exhibitions — A light and sculpture exhibition was produced during the winter by Justin Ligget and Kat Clear and mounted a major installation of outdoor works by David Stromeyer during the summer. 
  • “Imagination Station” — A pop-up tent branded with the “Imagine City Hall Park” design with a video camera set up to record responses asked by the facilitator.
  • Festoon Lights — Lighting artist Jason Ligget also installed a set of festoon lights in the 100-foot long alley between the Church Street Marketplace and the Park, to provide a greater sense of safety and reduce bad behavior at night.  Light colors are changed seasonally.
  • Public Exhibition  —  A final exhibit held at the BCA Center showcasing the process, outcomes, and the proposed design with an area for public feedback.