Grand Rapids, Mich.: Resurgence on the River

Though once headed for the sad fate of many other Rust-belt cities, this community on Michigan’s Grand River has turned its economy around by focusing on local investment and sustainable business practices.

| October/November 2013

Each year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS selects a handful of communities to highlight in our annual Great Places feature. Check out the other towns featured in our 2013 installment of 9 Great Places You've (Maybe) Never Heard of.

Grand Rapids, Michigan. Communities dealing with serious economic and environmental challenges might look to this city in western Michigan for lessons in how to turn things around.

Grand Rapids was known as the “furniture capital of the world” until the 1970s, when factories began shutting down and residents moved away. Pollution in the Grand River, which runs through the city, was so severe that no one could swim or eat fish caught in its waters. Instead of surrendering to rust and ruin, Grand Rapids staged a turnaround so effective that the city is frequently regarded as one of the country’s greenest.

“The community came together in an impressive, sustained effort to clean that river up,” says community activist Mick Lane, a lifelong resident. “It was a bipartisan effort. Left, right — the labels don’t count when it comes to our town.”

Grand Rapids is now ranked in the top 50 cities in the nation for LEED-certified buildings. Fast Company magazine has cited Grand Rapids as a lab, training camp and magnet of expertise in showing businesses how to be green and profitable. The recovery can be credited to a combination of local philanthropy and business partnerships, strategic planning, and significant support for small businesses and startups, according to Matthew Tueth, chair of Aquinas College’s sustainable business program.

“It took us a while, but after people realized that our [manufacturing] past was over, they really began to support smaller business ventures,” Tueth says. “Rather than trying to attract outside money, they spend their time and resources developing local businesses. We’ve shown we can do business in a way that provides value to the business, value to the natural world and value to the human community.”

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