When George Heartwell, a United Church of Christ pastor and former business owner, won a seat on the Grand Rapids City Council, in 1996, Michigan’s second-largest city was already on the comeback trail.
The town, whose famous fine-furniture manufacturing sector shrank badly in the 1960s, was trying to diversify. Its once-moribund downtown was reanimating itself with modern hotels, concert arenas, and restorations of handsome but worn buildings into attractive offices, entertainment spots, and apartments.
Add a new medical center, thousands of construction and medical jobs, city busses venturing into the suburbs, and a rebounding population: Clearly, New Urbanist development philosophy was healing Grand Rapids.
That pleased Heartwell, but he worried that his city’s renewed prosperity would leave behind poor people and minorities. And while the avid trout angler and former mortgage company owner cared deeply about the environment and Grand Rapids’ businesses, it wasn’t until he became mayor, in 2004, that he spoke much about rolling all three concerns—social, environmental, and business—into a unified approach that some folks were calling the Triple Bottom Line.
That is when Grand Rapids began to move beyond New Urbanism, to Sustainable Development.
“It became a passion of mine,” Heartwell said of the Triple Bottom Line. “The three work so well together: Whatever is good for the environment is good for people, and whatever is good for the economy is good for people, too. So you start to integrate, and try to think about all three when making decisions.”
Backed by a network of local, longtime, pro-sustainability business and civic leaders, Heartwell’s administration steadily installed Triple Bottom Line thinking across city operations, established an Office of Energy and Sustainability, and reached more than 80 percent of its original sustainability plan’s goals before Heartwell was term-limited from office at the end of 2015. The city, under its new mayor, Rosalynn Bliss, is implementing a new sustainability plan that runs to 2021.
The city is now a leader in municipal renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts. Grand Rapids gets 27 percent of its power from renewables, including solar panels on municipal buildings, methane digesters, landfill gas, and special “green block” electricity purchases from Consumers Energy. The city cut its greenhouse gas emissions by twice the original plan’s goal and exceeded many other conservation targets.
Local leaders interviewed for this article say the sustainability effort is improving the city’s economic foundation and making it more of a magnet for innovative companies and their workers. Eric DeLong, Grand Rapids’ assistant city manager, explained why.
“Companies that want to do business in a sustainable way don’t have to ask any questions,” DeLong said. “They know they are coming to a community that understands that. We’ve produced better outcomes; that means a better community; and that’s very attractive to people.”
Propose, Talk, Act, Check, Repeat
DeLong says that, as mayor, Heartwell turned the city toward sustainability by using a step-by-step process, moving quickly as opportunities appeared, and, particularly in its first few years, being inclusive when broaching new ideas.
“There was a large community discussion that happened in business circles, with city staff, with our residents, with city council,” DeLong recalled about Heartwell’s first term. “We worked first with Grand Valley State College and several other colleges, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and our transit agency.”
There was some pushback. In fact, one city council member ran against Heartwell’s first re-election bid and lost; another council opponent lost his own reelection bid. The mayor campaigned aggressively for his vision and helped others do the same.
“I never hesitated to find good people philosophically in sync with me and endorse them and raise money with them,” Heartwell said. “Being mayor is a great opportunity and you want to make the most of it.”
In his first term, the city launched a Vital Streets campaign to get and stay ahead of deteriorating roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, and pedestrian-scale landscaping. Voters approved it two-to-one, and also approved a parks millage.
“Our success with those allowed us to spend on other, similar things,” DeLong observed. “So we pledged to improve our storm water system,” which proved to be a prescient idea, given that repeated downpours flooded the downtown in April 2013.
By the end of Heartwell’s first term, in 2008, it was clear city government had changed, as DeLong puts it, “from using a corporate plan, which only considered the budget, to a sustainability plan for our strategies.” He added that moving the discussion from climate change to making the city resilient to all sorts of challenges, not just the weather, worked well. In 2010, halfway through Heartwell’s second term, the city adopted its FY2010 to FY2015 Sustainability Plan.
“Everybody wants to be resilient,” he observed, but also cautioned, “This cannot come from strictly the environmental point of view, because it’s about the social and business components, too. When people figured out that it was not just about the environment, it was also making sure we are not giving up jobs, but that we do want jobs that are environmentally sensitive—that balanced approach is really important.”
DeLong said that the real key to moving a city to sustainability is simply to get to work on it, keep working on it, and do lots of course corrections along the way.
“How do you improve processes? How do you get rid of waste? How do you control quality? There’s a plan, you do it, but then you have to check back. You act by changing; you keep innovating as you go forward.”
That innovation, he said, depends on looking closely at the blizzard of targets and metrics the Sustainability Plan contains.
The city’s latest report on its Plan, published online, finds that, “progress was made across the board in all areas of Sustainability. In FY14 a total of 155 targets were classified as ‘complete’; in FY15 this number has risen to 188, a 14.5% increase. As a result, over 81.03% of our targets are now met.”
“There are only two targets out of 232 targets showing little to no progress at this time,” the report continues. “Two targets which were classified as little to no progress from last years report have since been completed.”
The range of targets indicate that the first Plan, which expired this year, when a new, FY 2016-FY 2021 Sustainability Plan took effect, had a broad view of sustainability that considers good governance crucial.
The report evaluates efforts to strengthen the local economy, enhance the city’s customer service, improve neighborhoods and public health, protect the climate with renewable energy and efficiency, and improve storm water management. The hundreds of targets under the different bottom lines include more efficiency and renewable energy, job training, company recruitment, affordable housing, homelessness, snow removal, after-school job readiness, better bike paths, and downtown shuttle use.
DeLong said sustainability is working itself into the local culture and economy in many ways. Nearby colleges, including Grand Valley State University (where Heartwell works with the Office of Sustainability Practices to promote policy), Western Michigan University, and Davenport College teach sustainability, and some graduates have carried that philosophy with them into the area businesses they now work for.
“The businesses using sustainability are considered leadership organizations,” he said. “Most of the things that sustainability entails are the kinds of things that those leaders’ great grandparents would have taken as common sense: using resources wisely, not fouling your nest, doing more with less. We’ve gotten off the track that way, so sustainability is not too different from what we can learn from our elders.”
Rick Baker, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, also sees “kind of a ripple effect across the whole community.
“Awareness is at a higher level at a lot of businesses that are making decisions about investing in facilities and property. It is more of a conscious and intentional effort about what we should be doing and how we can contribute,” he said. “It is also an expectation from the work force; our own employees insist on recycling and things like that.”
Baker said such developments bode well for the city’s future, particularly regarding who will live there.
“It seems to me that if you are trying to attract the younger generation, they are cognizant of a community’s commitment to the environment and they want to live in communities that are good stewards.”
Baker thinks that helps explains why so many young entrepreneurs are investing in old, downtown buildings, making them efficient, and launching their businesses from them.
“Anecdotally, that is happening all over town,” he said. “It is a whole new value addition to the community.”
Asked whether the city would have embraced sustainability if Heartwell had not become mayor, Baker replied, “George was a real dynamic community ambassador and leader for getting us on a great course for being a city we w