Freestone Tends Environment
GRAND RAPIDS — Ken Freestone has always loved the outdoors: Kayaking is a favorite hobby. He also has been an advocate for environmental issues since before people knew the environment had issues.
Those two passions make his current role as project manager for the Green Infrastructure Initiative at West Michigan Strategic Alliance “a natural thing.”
Freestone was one of the original 250 volunteers during the start-up days of the Green Infrastructure Initiative. Along with the other volunteers, he drafted the common framework of the initiative in 1999-2000. Then he joined the Green Infrastructure Task Force, which was the offshoot of the original framework.
Until Freestone’s current position as project manager, his time with the alliance has been on a volunteer basis while he held other jobs. Last year Freestone worked at the Holland Area Arts Council where his wife, Lorma, is executive director. The board of directors hired Freestone to oversee the facilities and also create a green initiative for the arts council.
From 2003 to 2006, Freestone worked for the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies and other nonprofits, helping with strategic planning and fundraising. Before that, he served as executive director for the Macatawa Greenway Partnership, a land protection and trail organization servicing the Macatawa River in the Holland/Zeeland area from 1997 to 2003.
For roughly nine years prior to that, Freestone had worked in sales for numerous companies and also owned his own promotional products business for about six years.
Name: Ken Freestone
“We had been living up and down the East Coast, and I think the final blow was finding the big screwdriver in my ignition and someone having tried to steal my car, and I said, ‘You know what? I think it’s time. I’d like to go back to Holland,’” he said.
His wife, Lorma, whose family is from New York, agreed.
“It was a good place to raise a family. We could afford a home here, and so it was for many of the reasons (other) people come here,” he said.
Freestone still had family in the area and Lorma was familiar with Holland from having attended Hope College. It was during their college years that the two met, when they worked for the same person in downtown Holland. The couple has now been married for 31 years.
When Freestone moved back to West Michigan in 1987, his passion for the environment was drawn out during discussions about the lack of an environmental movement in the Holland area.
“WMEAC, or West Michigan Environmental Action Council, had been around for a while,” said Freestone. “But a lot of people didn’t know anything about any of the issues or activities in the Holland area.”
To answer that need, Freestone formed the Lakeshore Environmental Action Council. Its focus was on water pollution in the Lake Macatawa area, as well as on watershed concerns and investigations.
“It started out as word of mouth, and at first it was surprising how many people came on board,” said Freestone. “But then after a while, it wasn’t surprising, because I could tell there was a lot of passion and a lot of concern for environmental issues.”
The group met for about five years before dissipating.
“The good news from all that was, I started seeing a lot of those members end up on planning commissions, zoning boards, other nonprofit organizations and other elected positions,” he said. “So it was nice to start hearing and seeing the voice of environmental stewardship starting to infiltrate throughout the area.”
Since then, Freestone said, other environmental groups have sprouted up.
“Little by little throughout the years, we started hearing more and more about environmental issues,” he said. “Schools like Grand Valley started to pick up on that and really dedicated some resources and people and classes towards environmental stewardship.”
Freestone ran for Holland City Council and was elected as a council member-at-large in 1993.
“I served the whole community of the city of Holland, and I found it really rewarding. I think that was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Freestone said. “It allowed me to meet with people all over the community. It certainly opened up a lot of doors for me, and it allowed me to talk to business leaders, government officials and citizens at large to find out what the issues were that were really going on in the neighborhoods and community.”
Freestone was only able to serve on the city council for a single four-year term, as his promotional products business began taking a new direction that required him to be out of town for two to three days a week. Still, he felt it was a beneficial experience for the nonprofit work he came upon later in his career.
With the Green Infrastructure Initiative, Freestone works to protect and restore West Michigan’s green infrastructure network, which consists of urban and rural natural features and resources. The initiative focuses on six priority areas: watershed management, integrating green infrastructure into urban redevelopment and real estate transactions, promoting regional trails and greenways network, regional farmland preservation, protecting critical areas of biodiversity, and protecting shoreline and dune ecosystems.
“When you think about our West Michigan region, we have a lot of those resources and a lot of those assets. My job and the organization’s job is to bring people together, share tools, help them collaborate and create solutions.”
Freestone believes it is important for green infrastructure to be incorporated in urban planning from the beginning stages, but that areas that are already built up can find ways to infuse new green spaces such as on rooftops. The organization brought in a rooftop garden expert a few years ago, said Freestone.
“When we were in downtown Holland looking from one of our taller buildings across the landscape, he was looking at the top of the roofs, and I was looking at the land. He said, ‘Look at all that opportunity you have right there,’” said Freestone. “There is a lot of place for that; it’s just a matter of how to look for it and what to think about.”