Grand Rapids, Mich.: Resurgence on the River

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Photo By Rachel Kramer

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.”

One example is Metro Health, a teaching hospital that has established recycling and composting programs, built rain gardens, and uses green cleaning products throughout its facility. It was one of the first hospitals in the nation to receive LEED certification. It also has a nearly 50,000-square-foot green roof. “We definitely have sustainability on our minds here,” says Ellen Bristol, Metro Health’s director of internal communications.

What’s also frequently on the minds of Grand Rapids’ residents is their favorite local libation. “Beer City USA” is a well-deserved moniker, Mick Lane says, because of the city’s numerous craft breweries. Strong interest in locally produced foods is aided and abetted by the top-notch Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. “Grand Rapids is a great place for beginning chefs,” Lane says, “which works out well for those of us here who like to eat.”

Stats: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Population: 189,815
Climate: 36” annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 30 degrees Fahrenheit; July avg. high: 83 degrees F
Median household income: $38,731
Median home price: $97,000

K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden. Find her on .

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