The closing plenary at Greenbuild in Chicago featured a discussion panel stocked with mayors from several prominent American cities. One leader, however, seemed out of place: George Heartwell, part-time mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who sat proudly alongside the mayors of Albuquerque, Chicago and Austin, Texas.
Mayor Heartwell's tiny constituency -- a population of just 200,000 -- made him the odd man out in the plenary discussion, but his fundamental grasp of both the problems facing us and the myriad solutions available quickly won over the crowd. Heartwell cast a big shadow at Greenbuild; it's hard to ignore the fact that a full 11 percent of all LEED-certified buildings can be found in the Grand Rapids, and that the city boasts the highest volume of green-built space per capita than any other city in the nation.
The mayor's comments--provided below--illustrate the appeal and true viability of leadership at a local level. All four panelists described the lack of federal guidance in combating climate change, and all four were resolute in their capability to move forward without direction from above. Heartwell, speaking for "small town America," drives home the notion that every problem is a local problem--and every solution can be found there too.
The following comments are taken from Mayor George Heartwell's remarks at Greenbuild 2007.
I know you’re all wondering: what’s Grand Rapids doing here? What’s Heartwell doing sitting with the big boys up here? Grand Rapids has a population of 200,000 people, a fraction the size of Chicago or Albuquerque. We are an old industrial city. Once we proudly called ourselves the furniture capital of the world—but slapped in the face by the world, as globalization has emptied our factories and set us back on our heels. Set us back, but not knocked us out.
Grand Rapids is in the process of re-inventing itself, and we’re doing it in the context of a balanced, triple bottom line focused on the community’s social equity, economic prosperity and environmental stewardship vision. We’re talking together about our community issues. We’re partnering together where synergy and energy can strengthen results, and we’re reaching out to help others learn to do the same.
We are developing a community of learners in Grand Rapids who will pass on a vibrant, stable, healthy way of life to our children’s children. Grand Rapids is proud to be the first and still the only city in the U.S. to have achieved the designation “regional center of expertise” for education and sustainable development by the United Nations University.
Over a six-week period in September and October, I cut ribbons—that’s what mayors do, we cut ribbons—on five new buildings in Grand Rapids: a new ballet performance hall, a 340-room J.W. Marriott hotel, a new public art museum, a university engineering school and a century-old Greek Revival rehabilitation project for a nonprofit housing corporation. All five built to LEED standards; all five seeking LEED certification. We have a dozen area schools striving for LEED certification. We have a new zoning code with LEED-ND principles built into it. Even our Habitat for Humanity chapter, which builds 20 houses a year for low-income families, last month committed itself to building only LEED-certified homes.
So what’s different about Grand Rapids that enables me to sit with national leaders like these mayors? First of all, everything we do in the city—everything we do—must fit within our sustainability plan. I have a director of sustainability who not only spins off a new idea every hour, but who has the responsibility for embedding sustainability in the city organization and reaching out to anyone and everyone who asks for help in these matters.
The most important element of our sustainability work is our community sustainability partnership. We’ve committed to do three things: establish a common framework for planning, centered on a balanced triple bottom line; develop our own sustainability plans based on our sustainability plans, based on that framework; and we will measure and report all of our progress collectively to allow for that all-important community dialogue.
This simple vision and this model built on partnerships has proved to be so compelling that we have all sorts of businesses and organizations asking how they can become part of the conversation. Today, there are roughly 130 members who have signed onto the partnership. And all, to one degree or another, are developing individual plans based on a common framework. We’re learning together, we’re practicing together, and together we are growing a sustainable grand rapids.
So here I am: the part-time mayor of a little Rust Belt city, in front of the greenbuild conference. Is this cool or what? Here’s my message: if it can happen in Grand Rapids, it can happen anywhere. The culture of a place can change, and the culture of every place must change. If we do not become more sustainable, then the future of the United States is grim indeed. If we do not become more sustainable, then our vision of a world that gets progressively better with every generation is itself a vision. If we do not become more sustainable, then our grandchildren will curse the days we lived and the ways we lived. It has to happen. There’s nothing more important than that.
There is a bright green future for main street America.
Just an FYI: Heartwell's name is spelled with an "e".
How about changing the city's name from Grand Rapids to Green Rapids? By the way, the World Changing book features a two-page photo of a local, Grand Rapids home on page 141, the introduction to the Shelter chapter. The home was designed by a Grand Rapids architecture firm.