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The Evolution of Sustainability Planning in Grand Rapids

By 3p Contributor

By Haris Alibašić

Through the careful development of a sustainability plan, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan has become one of the most sustainability planning-oriented communities in the United States.

In a presentation entitled Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously: How Cities Choose their Paths Towards Sustainability to the Community Sustainability Partnership Summit held in Grand Rapids on May 10, 2006, Kent Portney predicted that the City of Grand Rapids was “poised to enter the real elite of the country – a regional and national leader for mid-sized cities.” These words sounded prophetic and visionary at the same time. The city became a national leader, among a select few, focusing on sustainability.

The process of embedding sustainability in all levels of local government was a long one and it was not done in a vacuum. There are several elements that contributed to the achievement of Grand Rapids’ sustainability efforts, including but not limited to:

  • Internal efficiency and operational improvements using Lean principles;
  • Significant policy and planning stages – sustainability plan, renewable energy goals, green building policy;
  • Community’s participation and partnerships in pursuit of sustainability;
  • Empowering employees to champion sustainability targets;
  • Measuring, tracking and reporting, using sustainability progress reports.
Each segment of creating sustainable community in Grand Rapids fed into the next.

Internal efficiency and operational improvements using Lean 

The first discussions about sustainability in Grand Rapids started in early 2004. Around that same time, the city started introducing the Lean process into operations, which proved extremely valuable to the support of qualitative and quantitative outcomes in sustainability-related efforts. Lean efforts in the city of Grand Rapids played an important part in developing the sustainability practices that are in place today. As evidenced by the effective measurements of the Lean outcomes and direct inclusion of the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle in the City’s Sustainability Plan, Lean principles were effectively fused with core operations, ultimately providing very impressive results in savings and reduction in process waste.

Significant policy and planning stages

In 2002, the city adopted the updated Master Plan with significant public engagement and input. This important document set the framework for future sustainability-related work. The first Grand Rapids Sustainability Plan was published in August of 2006 and it was intended to move Grand Rapids towards being a sustainable city with specific policy direction of municipal services provisions respecting the principles of sustainability (economics, environment, and social responsibility).

Subsequently, in 2006, the city passed a resolution establishing a sustainability policy for city-owned buildings, standardizing requirements for construction, renovation, and management, requiring the potential use of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) principles, water conservation, and energy use reduction. It is no coincidence that the Grand Rapids area is home to some of the largest concentration of LEED certified buildings per capita in U.S., with many first in LEED design, the first LEED-certified Art Museum, and a building with the most LEED points in the world. The city’s Water Department’s administration building was the first LEED-certified building in Michigan.

In 2007, Grand Rapids was designated a United Nations University Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) in recognition of its efforts to achieve the goals of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD, 2005-2014).  Another milestone was the city’s publication of the Triple Bottom Line report in 2008, containing the community-wide triple bottom measurements as a benchmark for assessing progress. Equally important is the city’s 2009 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy financed through Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants (EECBG). The strategy contained not only specific recommendations for the city’s energy conservation and efficiency improvements, but it also provided the first community and organizational Green House Gas Emissions report. It has been used ever since as the key benchmark for measuring city’s carbon footprint.

The renewable energy goals were intended to initially power 20 percent of the city’s operations with renewable energy by the end of 2008, and then to power 100 percent of operations by 2020. The goal spurred an internal innovation revolution, as each department sought different solutions to meeting the targets. At over 22 percent of its renewable energy goals, the city is on its way to 100 percent. Similar to Lean process and techniques, renewable energy targets drive and motivate city staff to be creative and innovative in seeking sustainable measures.

Community’s participation, partnerships, and pursuit of sustainability

The ability to work in partnership and conduct sustainability-related activities is what moves the sustainability needle in a positive direction. In 2005, together with four other organizations, the city created the Grand Rapids Area Community Sustainability Partnership as a diverse, collaborative effort to promote and share best sustainability practices in planning and operations.


From the five original members presented in diagram above, currently the partnership has 225 members, of which over 60 percent are businesses.









Cities and Municipalities


Trade and Professional Organizations


Zoos and Parks


Faith Based Organizations


Health Care






225 Organizations As of Oct. 2013


Working with local universities, private sector companies, and colleges, the city is looking to find the best solutions to region-wide issues. The city’s sustainability plan, while it relates to the city as an organization with its own operations and resources, also focuses on the larger implication of sustainability in the region and impact on the community. Collaborative efforts  in the area of sustainability and resiliency in the region, energy audits and energy efficiency improvements in neighborhood homes, increased recycling through local economic incentives, and the most recent work on resiliency report with local partners are further evidence of the importance of partnerships to achieve successful sustainability related outcomes.

Empowering employees to champion sustainability targets

One of the most important aspects of the sustainability plan is that it empowers employees to take ownership of sustainability targets. It increases the level of collaboration and leadership among employees. The targets were created by employees and tied to the budget process and then champions are taking ownership of specific targets. Each champion of the sustainability target works closely with counterparts in other departments to make sure targets are being met. The plan was an organic process not dictated by the mayor or the city manager, but facilitated through involvement of city departments at various management levels.

The new plan set specific goals with measurable targets and timelines for the achievement of these goals. The plan also assigned responsibilities to various departments. For example, under the environmental outcomes and goals, one of the targets is to increase miles of on-street bike lanes to 70 miles by June 30, 2015.  While the primary champion assigned to this target is an employee from the Traffic Safety department, staff from Planning, Engineering, and other departments are also involved in supporting the outcomes related to this particular target, leading to better collaboration and leveraging of resources, and ultimately expediting progress.  As a result, a total of 9.1 miles of bike lanes have been added during the first two years of the implementation of the Sustainability Plan.

Measuring, tracking and reporting using sustainability progress reports

The foundation for Grand Rapids’ sustainability vision is the ability to measure, track and report the sustainability efforts.  This philosophy provided the primary direction for the goals, outcomes, and targets established in the sustainability plan. It ensures departments and city staff are being held accountable. Progress reports are available at the city website and provide additional transparency of sustainability-related efforts. Targets are reported annually.

One of the examples of efficient use of measuring the sustainability related outcomes is the city’s commitment to reducing Green House Gas (GHG) emissions through its Sustainability Plan, and tracking and reporting of such efforts.  Outcomes related to GHG emission reduction are measured for the entire organization and translate to benefits for the community.  Some of the measurable outcomes that have contributed to significant reduction of GHG emissions include the city’s energy efficiency projects, solar panel project, installation of geothermal at fire stations, installation of a sustainable roof at City Hall, the electric vehicle charging stations, recycling, waste minimization, and green energy purchase. In addition to the environmental benefits of reducing CO2 emissions as a result of the city's operation, allowing the city to exceed its annual GHG reduction targets, these projects add considerable economic and social benefits for the organization.

In summary, all elements of sustainability discussed here are important to the success of embedding sustainability in Grand Rapids and creating a more resilient community. They are not exclusive of each other and by no means represent the full and final spectrum of the elements needed for effective implementation of sustainability in communities and organizations.

For more information about the sustainability work being done in Grand Rapids, visit http://www.sustainablegr.org

Haris Alibašić directs the City of Grand Rapids’ Office of Energy and Sustainability and teaches graduate courses in public administration and sustainability at Grand Valley State University. Mr. Alibašić is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy and Administration at Walden University, with a research focus on sustainability, energy and public policy, and is a recipient of the Commitment to Social Change doctoral scholarship.

[image credit: Michigan Municipal League: Flickr cc]

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