Government and Sustainability

City manager touts sustainability, equity

Forum provides window into city’s strategic plan surrounding justice, health and the environment.

February 21, 2020
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WMSBF Mark Washington
Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington addresses a West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum luncheon crowd. Courtesy #C3TalkToMe and ACTPhotoMedia

Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington recently provided a progress report on some key components of the city’s new strategic plan and its planned next steps in those areas.

Washington was the featured speaker at the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Feb. 10 luncheon at The Rapid’s Central Station, 250 Grandville Ave. SW in downtown Grand Rapids.

According to previous Business Journal reports, the city of Grand Rapids in April 2019 adopted a strategic plan that included six priority areas: governmental excellence, economic prosperity and affordability, engaged and connected community, health and environment, mobility, and safe community.

The plan included a commitment to embed racial equity into all city decisions, policies and procedures. It said reaching equity involves “leveraging city influence to intentionally remove and prevent barriers created by systemic and institutional injustice.”

The document also formalized the city’s priority of sustainability, which was defined as “the ability to be maintained; making decisions with an understanding of how those decisions will impact the environment, people and communities, and finances both today and in the future.”

The full plan can be found at grandrapidsmi.gov.

Washington took the stage to share with local business and community leaders in attendance a brief history of social inequity, racism and poverty in the city and the specific issues the local government will tackle — in partnership with community organizations — to address the persistent problems.

He said the indigenous peoples native to this area were good stewards of the environment, but when the European discovery of the continent happened, and industrialization followed — which he called a “good” thing that made the U.S. one of the world’s greatest economies — there were “intended and unintended impacts” of the new built environment, including the segregation of minorities into industrialized areas and urban cores, which compounded the poverty and public health issues that persist today. He said a 2016 W.K. Kellogg Foundation report on Grand Rapids’ “neighborhoods of focus” — or 17 out of the city’s 46 Census tracks — found those areas contain 62,000 residents who are disproportionately people of color, and nearly 40% of those residents live below the poverty line. 

Particularly in the 49507 ZIP code, public health issues caused by lead-based paint and water contamination persist.

“We know that there are other disparities that we have to be conscious of when it comes to disproportionate rates of incarceration, disproportionate rates of unemployment, disproportionate rates of housing — that we have to be very intentional to make sure that whatever we do, we do not contribute to that disproportionality, but that we are very intentional about being inclusive,” Washington said.

While during the past few decades, the region came to understand the need for restoring the natural environment, much of the focus was on wildlife and nature rather than people, Washington said, which perpetuated existing problems.

“Our challenge is making sure that we do not only respect and maintain the natural environment, but we do it in a way that’s respectful of the people who are in the environment and that we really honor the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit,” he said.

He noted environmental justice asks the questions, “Who do our actions benefit?” as well as “Who do they burden?” This brings up ethical issues such as balancing the need for additional green space in low-income neighborhoods with the need for more affordable housing.

In light of these issues, the city included “health and environment” as one of its six strategic priorities. Under that umbrella are five objectives:

  • Reduce carbon emissions and increase climate resiliency.

  • Ensure equitable access to and use of green spaces and increase recreational activities.

  • Protect and preserve our water resources.

  • Minimize waste generation and promote waste diversion practices.

  • Collaborate with and support partners working to reduce health disparities and the resulting undesired outcomes.

The city already has begun addressing many of these objectives, Washington said, including equitable economic development and mobility; park acquisition and open space; lead paint in homes; water treatment and lead-copper water lines; mass transit and micro transit; housing and homelessness; waste diversion and carbon footprint reduction through the community collaboration behind the Zero Cities Project; solar energy; and stormwater diversion and erosion protection.

Washington said while creating awareness around environmental issues is important, people won’t participate if there is no convenient access to the infrastructure needed to make healthy, environmentally friendly changes, including bike lanes, trails and sidewalks, recycling services, yard waste collection and solar energy, to name a few.

The city is currently in the midst of evaluating budget priorities for fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1. Some of the plans underway include deploying racial equity training across city departments, as well as improving water quality; boosting access to solar energy; expanding access to compost programs; remediating lead-based paint in homes; increasing micro-local, minority-owned business initiatives so that people of color can economically benefit from the green economy; and more.

Washington issued a call to action to attendees of the forum to increase environmental justice and equity in West Michigan.

“I challenge you to evaluate and assess your own biases … and check the biases of those that you’ve worked with and that you partner with corporately. I challenge you to examine the systems and practices that are in place and make sure that people in your organization are aware of the expectations, specifically around hiring. I challenge you to do what you can to create an inclusive and a diverse organization, particularly with people of color who may have not had access to the spaces that you’re in,” he said.

“No one can do this by themselves; we all need to continue to work and collaborate together.”

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