Going Green

October 23, 2007
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He may have been preaching to the choir, but smart growth expert Tom Daniels still had a very inconvenient message for attendees at the West Michigan Green Infrastructure Initiative’s Natural Connections Summit at the Pinnacle Center in Hudsonville.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten the word out to the situation we’re in,” said the University of Pennsylvania professor of environmental planning and growth management, responding to a question about the apparent commitment to urban sprawl that is the new M-6 commercial corridor. “Most places in the U.S. only have about 20 years to get their act together … We’re not operating as a sustainable nation, and a big part of it is our lifestyle.”

Hardly new concepts to those familiar with the attempts at smart growth promoted by the Grand Valley Metro Council and Kent County’s purchase of development rights program, Daniels’ keynote address centered on the responsible planning of communities, a need to eliminate commuting, protect watersheds, rework zoning and preserve agriculture use and associated green space.

Daniels manages the Lancaster, Pa., farmland preservation program, often regarded as the national model for such programs, and is a consultant on similar efforts across the country. As mentioned, much of his message involved issues local smart growth advocates have been dealing with for years: namely, the inability of townships and developers to support high-density, mixed-use communities in lieu of infrastructure-stretching suburban clusters.

As a part of the solution, he suggested municipal consolidation. “The current system you see dates back to 17th -century England, and you don’t see all those local governments in England anymore. They’ve recognized that it doesn’t work in the modern world,” he said. “When you have so many local governments, they all become focused on what can drive the property tax base, and those decisions aren’t necessarily the best ones for residents or the environment.”

Daniels was on point with the mission of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, the event’s organizer and WMGII’s parent body, with his call to think regionally. If consolidation isn’t a possibility, he said, municipalities should consider merging planning departments as multi-jurisdictional authorities, allowing each body to have a say on developments in neighboring jurisdictions likely to impact it.

“The lowest cost won’t be the way to go,” said Daniels. “You need to look at green infrastructure the same way you look at gray infrastructure — it’s an investment.”

His inherent suggestion was that instead of the state issuing bonds to build a highway such as M-6, which had a negative immediate impact on green infrastructure in West Michigan, perhaps that money could have been used to fund farmland preservation.

“The truth is that if we want to save our cities, we need to save our farmland,” said Mark Miller, president-elect of the Grand Valley chapter of the American Institute of Architects, when introducing the results of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance’s three Regional Urban Design Charrettes.

  • Believe it or not, a beauty show featuring a bevy of bunnies traipsing down a runway only clad in fur was held at DeVos Place last week, and the pageant had nothing to do with Hugh Hefner or the Playboy Empire. The American Rabbit Breeders Association was in town last week, and the group filled the building’s massive exhibit space with 23,000 cages.

“They did well, because their goal was 19,000,” said George Helmstead, vice president of sales and marketing for the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The rabbit turnout was at least the second-largest in the association’s history. Bureau president Steve Wilson said Grand Rapids is a good fit for the ARBA because the group sees Grand Rapids as a big small city with rural and agricultural roots.

SMG Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan said the event drew an unusually large number of curiosity seekers, up to 5,000, and that many of the downtown restaurants did a booming business while the breeders were here.

“There was a rush on carrots and lettuce,” he said.

  • Linda A. Watters, commissioner of the state Office of Financial and Insurance Services, has turned in her resignation to Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, effective Oct. 31. OFIS oversees Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; 30 health maintenance organizations;  141 banks;  169 domestic insurance companies; 239 credit unions; 1,303 foreign insurance companies; 1,484 investment advisors; 2,178 securities broker-dealers; 7,521 consumer finance lenders; 123,486 insurance agents; and 107,991 securities agents.

Granholm has named Detroit native and U-M grad Ken Ross, deputy commissioner for policy and a former assistant attorney general, as acting commissioner. Watters is not just leaving Lansing, she’s leaving Michigan for Illinois, where she will join the financial risk management practice of KPMG LLP in Chicago.

  • Elizabeth Ebihara, corporate marketing manager for Haworth Inc., turned the Holland office furniture maker into a guinea pig for the new West Michigan advertising consortium that’s calling itself Gravity Six. GR-VI produced a video shown to Haworth sales leadership right before NeoCon.

“They nailed it,” Ebihara said. “I liked a lot of different talents that were sprinkled around the different agencies. This was like having your cake and eating it, too.”

But the concept took some explaining to her Haworth compatriots. “When I had to communicate to people within the ranks at Haworth, I’d say, ‘Consider this an all-star team.’” GR-VI, comprising six local firms, hopes to attract big clients with a seamless team approach.

  • Is there an echo in here? Southeast Michigan is finally peeking over the wreckage of the auto industry with a call to galvanize life sciences for economic growth. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce’s Panel on Medical Education and Research, led by former Congressman Joe Schwartz, last week recommended conducting an economic impact study of the life sciences sector, expanding life sciences business accelerators, bringing university research and technology firms to the region, enhancing technology transfer, and attracting venture capitalists. No kidding. Really?      

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