2016 Get Local Party

How Grand Rapids’ Mayor Brought Sustainability to Town

September 29, 2016 | |

Grand Rapids is on a roll. From booming tourism to a revitalized riverfront; from its famous ArtPrize competition to its wildly popular lip-dub video of a sing-along downtown parade, this onetime fine-furniture manufacturing capital is roaring back to life after surviving a near-death experience as a Rust Belt city.

The comeback started in the late 1970s, when city leaders began employing New Urbanism—restoring old downtown buildings and neighborhoods instead of erecting new ones in exurbia; investing in pedestrian, biking, and bussing choices; fixing up public spaces and filling them with community events; and more.

That’s where things were when George Heartwell, a local United Church of Christ pastor, joined city council in 1996. He became Grand Rapids’ mayor in 2004, served for 12 years, and left office at the end of 2015, due to term limits.

Heartwell ran for council to help “the voiceless”—people of limited means or hindered by gender or racial stereotypes. But he also realized that people and businesses of all stripes must face up to not only doing something to slow climate change, but also defend against its increasingly fearsome effects, including flooding, heat waves, extreme storms, new insect-borne diseases, and more.

So, when he became mayor, Heartwell embraced something beyond New Urbanism, called “sustainability.” It marked a new way of municipal decision-making that paid much closer attention to how city priorities of all sorts affect the environment, the local economy, and social equity—known collectively as the “triple bottom line.”

So these days, while Grand Rapid’s growing public transportation system, innovative rapid bus line, and strong renewable energy goals turn heads, Heartwell says those are just parts of a broad municipal effort, one he’s still advancing whenever he can.

Believing that the Grand Traverse region is ready to hear Heartwell’s message, the Michigan Climate Action Network, Northwestern Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Citizens Climate Lobby and the Groundwork Center are bringing the former mayor to Traverse City on Oct. 6. He will talk to citizens, civic leaders, and local officials about how sustainability is helping Grand Rapids, and how the region can learn and benefit from his community’s experience.

We tracked Heartwell down at his new gig as community sustainability coordinator for Grand Valley State University’s Office of Sustainability Practices.


Groundwork Center: Please tell us a little bit about how you embraced sustainability.

George Heartwell: I look at sustainability as a room with three doors: environment, economics and social equity.

I came in through social equity. My passion when I ran for office was to give a voice to people marginalized by race, sexual identity, or poverty. But once you get into that sustainability room, no matter which door you came through, you start understanding how those triple bottom line considerations affect each other.

I have the other doors too: I’m a trout fisherman; I’m now living on 30 acres on Muskegon River. But my point is, I didn’t come to sustainability thru the environment. Whatever is good for environment is good for people; whatever is good for the economy is good for people, so you start to integrate all these different things.


Groundwork: I know that the city has long had the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. Did that help inspire your move to sustainability?

George Heartwell: It was already in place when I became mayor. I drew from its membership to form an environmental advisory council—30 people who worked with me to create an agenda and stood with me on controversial environmental issues, like developing renewable energy for the city, and to push back on skeptics. I had members who were business people, who tend to be pretty conservative, stand with me. That’s where the forum has been most helpful for me.


Groundwork: Why do you think local action is so important for building sustainability? Isn’t that something state and federal governments should do?

George Heartwell: I was at the U.N. climate conferences in Warsaw and then in Paris. So I understand the value of international agreements. But the actual work that affects climate happens at the local level.

When you are mayor of a city and realize your city is being impacted by climate change, you realize that if you are not aggressive, matters will be even worse in decades to come.

I was one of 600 mayors who went to Paris. We spent a day at city hall with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg leading the discussion. We talked about what we are and could be doing. I left there with high degree of optimism and hopefulness for the Paris Accords, but not because it was signed by 192 nations. It was because the mayors pledged to go back to their communities and get this work done. Those higher levels just don’t have the urgency that mayors do: My river’s going to flood. Extreme heat events threaten my neighbors. So I have to get stuff done.


Groundwork: What were some of the first things you worked on, and what kind of pushback did you see?

George Heartwell: Moving the city away from traditional strategic planning to sustainability planning was a major step. Every single department head was assigned goals regarding the environment, social equity, and the economy. You will be measured, and evaluated on achieving those.

It took a few years for people to see we really were serious about meeting the triple bottom line, but it became part of the culture.

Grand Rapids has a city manager-city council form of government, with the mayor as chief political office. I got to set the direction, and the manager and his team had to follow that direction. But because I was only one vote of seven on city council, I had to win the support of colleagues.

I had critics on council my first four years, fighting me every step of the way. One ran against me in the next mayoral election and lost, so we solved that. The other ran a very poor campaign for council re-election, so by year five I had a commission that was just extraordinary to work with.

Once I got in office and started to really understand sustainability, you can see that I gave this strong emphasis to the triple bottom line in each State of the City address. That became a hallmark of my tenure.


Groundwork: What effect does working toward these goals have on community unity? Global warming deniers make the issue highly divisive.

George Heartwell: There are fewer and fewer deniers. The science is more robust and convincing today, and I hope this election will put an end to all that nonsense.

Certainly I had deniers in my early days. One thing a leader has to do is be persistent and unbending on matters of principal. You can compromise on process and strategy, but not principal. So I built a supportive community behind me to survive re-election twice.

Today climate change is rarely a conversation here; it’s part of our culture, although I know there are still people around here who think this is all a Barack Obama conspiracy.

My argument to deniers has always been: OK, let’s say there isn’t any anthropomorphic climate change taking place. If we do what we are suggesting, in 30 years we’ll have better transit, better storm water management, less flooding, people will be safer, and we will have clean energy. So tell me what’s bad about any of that.

That doesn’t always silence them, but now I just don’t argue with them any more. It’s not about science for them; it’s about politics.


Groundwork: Having your own city-owned utility would be a big help, but Grand Rapids doesn’t have that. How does that affect efforts around renewable energy?

George Heartwell: We are Consumer Energy’s largest customer, so I used that leverage. I even threatened to restart our own municipal utility; Grand Rapids used to have one. So Consumers held out an olive branch. I took every branch they offered.

When I said we are going to get 20 percent from renewables by 2008, there was no way we could have done that without Consumers. So we’ve been straight-out buying it from them.

However, our current project is a 38-acre solar array that will produce about three megawatts of power. We’re putting it at a superfund site. We invited Consumers to build it, but they said, “We’ve met our renewable energy requirement, so we don’t need another project now.”

So we said we will develop it ourselves. We will shoot its power right across the river, to our waste treatment plant. It’s a public/private partnership. We are also doing rooftop solar on many of our city buildings, and Consumers has no role in that. But we’ve always looked at them as a partner.

Our 2020 goal of 100 percent renewable energy for the city government itself is reset for 2025. That’s nine years out, and entirely possible.


Groundwork: Is Grand Rapids helping citizens accomplish some of the same goals the city has?

George Heartwell: A little bit. There is a program through the Michigan State Housing Authority, supplemented with block grant dollars, which finances home energy efficiency retrofits. The first thousand dollars is a grant, followed by a zero- or low-interest loan.

A group is working on the early stages of a neighborhood distributed generation project. They settled on solar panels. People can buy into it in their neighborhood.


Groundwork: If you’d been mayor in a different city, would you have been able to accomplish this? Is this mostly about strong leadership?

George Heartwell: That’s a hard question. I’ve spent almost my whole life here. I’ve been in business, the ministry; I have a reputation and a network of relationships.

It is a wonderful coincidence between who I am and where I found myself. When the right person comes along at the pregnant moment, things can happen swiftly.

Having said that, every city can do what GR has done, and more. People all over the world are becoming aware of sustainability and climate change, so this is that pregnant moment. Put a leader in that environment, someone who has that vision and passion and thick skin to see it through, and our story can be the story for any city.


Groundwork: When the flood hit Grand Rapids in 2013, did the work the city did beforehand make much difference? If the same kind of storm came again, how would city infrastructure handle it?

George Heartwell: We had already separated most of our combined sewers. If we had not done that, there would have been massive overflows of sewage into the Grand River. Even with all that rain, there was no such overflow.

But there were problems all over town, and that threw a cold glass of water in our face: We have to get on the stick and invest more in storm water management.

So we did a climate change vulnerability study, including storm water. They are making some great strides—doing bio-retention swales, porous asphalt, curb-cut rain gardens—all to keep rainwater out of the gray (sanitary) system and let it soak into ground. We have two retention basins under parks now that capture runoff instead of running it into the river.


Groundwork: Many people care passionately about these issues, but see almost nothing being done about them on the federal, state, or local level. Where should people dig in?

George Heartwell: Clearly we have to do everything we can in our own lives to minimize our footprint on the environment, so composting and transportation patterns and retrofitting your home or investing in green power—all that is really important.

But it is also important to stand up and speak for the environment directly to Congress or City Hall. We all have a responsibility to be advocates for the amazing world we live in.

About the Author

​Jim Dulzo is the Groundwork Center’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].

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