Historic Settlement Patterns

To know where we’re going, it is often useful to look where we’ve been.  In Vermont, we often talk about the importance of maintaining the state’s “traditional” or “historic” settlement pattern of compact villages surrounded by rural countryside.  This concept is so important that it is one of the state’s statutory planning and development goals, as well as a key characteristic of smart growth.  Understanding how, where, and why Vermont developed the way that it did reveals several interesting trends.

Vermont’s traditional landscape – compact villages surrounded by a working landscape of farms and forests – was largely established in the early 19th century.  During our early settlement years, we saw the evolution of agriculture from subsistence farming, to intensive grazing for sheep production, to dairy, to the emerging diversification shaping agriculture today.  Forests were initially cleared for homesteading and potash production, and then pasture land (including areas not suited for pasture, as documented by George Perkins Marsh in his seminal bookMan and Nature).  With the demise of large-scale sheep production, Vermont’s forests returned and today provide the state with many ecological and economic benefits.


Early industrial development and focus on rail and water for transportation reinforced our village centers and downtowns.  Populations in most communities, and in Vermont as a whole, rose sharply between the nation’s first census in 1791 and the 1850’s, after which it remained stagnant for the next 100 years.

However, that long period of population-stability did not affect all communities equally. Vermont’s population shifted from the countryside to the city, as rural farming communities, such as Huntington and Georgia, experienced a sustained period of population decline.


Urban centers, such as Bennington and Springfield however, underwent a period of population growth, as industry grew in importance relative to farming, and new immigrants came to Vermont, attracted by opportunities in the quarries, mills and factories.  In effect, from the 1850s through the 1950s, Vermont’s population did not stagnate as much as it reorganized from a predominately rural, and unsustainable, settlement pattern to a more concentrated pattern. It has been in the past two or three decades that population levels in our centers have remained steady while the countryside has seen a sharp influx of residents.


As early as the 1930’s and 1940’s Vermonters recognized the importance of the state’s natural resources, and landscape, to our economic well being.  This was partly due to growing national awareness of the importance of land conservation and stewardship, as well as the growing number tourists visiting the state.  In 1938, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce sponsored a conference titled “Keeping ‘Unspoiled Vermont’ Unspoiled,” and in 1946 Vermont Life magazine was founded by the State to celebrate Vermont’s unique character and promote tourism.

The 1950’s saw one quarter of Vermont’s workforce employed in agricultural, mining or forestry, and over 10,000 small family farms operated around the state.  Community life revolved around town and village centers due, in part, to a rudimentary road network.  Change came to Vermont in the form of 391 miles of new interstate highway that allowed easier access to many areas in Vermont.

The population grew seven times faster in the 1960’s than in previous decades.  IBM went from an employer of 200 people in Essex Junction to employ over 2,500 (today, IBM employs over 6,000 Vermonters).  Cultural changes in the nation, including a back-to-the-land movement, also fueled population growth in the state. Most of these new residents located in the state’s many small, rural communities.  This period also saw the first decline in the dairy industry while the tourism and recreational industries began to grow rapidly.  The first legislative steps were taken in order to maintain the state’s special character with the banning of bill boards and bottle laws.

The economic growth of the 1970’s and 80’s spurred a high rate of land development.  Concern over this uncontrolled development and construction boom resulted in several landmark laws aimed at managing growth.  These included passage of Act 250 and the Land Gains Tax in the early 1970’s, as well as Act 200 and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Fund in the late 1980’s.

The trends that have been reshaping the state since the 1960’s – and which intensified in the 1990’s – have continued until today.  Despite modest population growth, compared with other states in the south and west, our rate of land consumption has been 2.5 times greater than the rate of population growth.  Farmland continues to be lost to development in our rural and suburban communities.

In recent years, the state has taken steps to reverse the trend of sprawling development patterns by targeting investment in downtowns, village centers and designated “growth centers” to help those areas compete with new development along our highway strips and on farmland out in the countryside.  At the same time, more Vermonters are rediscovering the benefits of living within walking distance of schools, services and job opportunities.  Consequently, the number of smart growth development projects has been on the rise for several years.

While sprawl is still occurring, Vermont is turning the corner to a period in which population growth and associated development will respect – and not undermine – our traditional settlement pattern of compact villages surrounded by a rural countryside.