GreenTown draws local leaders for sustainability summit

Courtesy Photo /
Grand Rapids was the site of Green Town

Courtesy Photo / Grand Rapids was the site of Green Town

Garrett Pelican

Demonstrating the importance of sustainability in West Michigan, leaders from the public and private sectors conferred at Grand Valley State University’s Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids for “GreenTown: The Future of Community” on Thursday and Friday.

Marking the second time the event has visited Grand Rapids, “GreenTown” invited its attendees to share ideas and set goals in order to promote the development of sustainability in the local community.

“There’s a wonderful quote that’s attributed to Chief Seattle who said, ‘We don’t inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children,’” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. “As a grandfather, I take that quite seriously. I’ve got to be a steward of this world for the generations that are going to follow after I’m long gone.”

As a result of Heartwell’s “green” agenda since taking office, Grand Rapids now receives 20 percent of its power from renewable resources – a figure the city has pledged to increase to 100 percent by 2020 – and plans to affect sustainable change using a triple bottom line of environmental, economic and social development.

“I view sustainability as a framework for making a better decision today using the triple bottom line of social, environmental and economic impact,” said Norman Christopher, executive director of the GVSU Sustainable Community Development Initiative. “What we’re doing is using that lens to make a better decision that we’re passing on to future generations.”

Christopher went on to give examples of the triple bottom line.

“Environmentally, that could mean ensuring that we’re not polluting the environment or using resources that are not renewable. Certainly meeting economic vitality means having jobs and creating efficiency. Socially, it could mean having social impact, improving social justice, or it could mean just having a greater social responsibility,” he added.

One of the event’s planners, John Harris, said working toward sustainability can be done in many simple ways that include recycling, purchasing hybrid vehicles or traveling by foot or bicycle.

“I think most people have to choose what they’re passionate about,” he said. “For some, it may be public service like helping the homeless, whether it’s raising money to mitigate or eliminate homelessness or volunteering at a homeless shelter. If it’s the environment, what can you do in your life? Can you garden? If you garden, can you do it organically with no pesticides?”

Featuring four tracks – climate strategies for sustainable communities, community design and building, healthy food and the outdoors – and speakers from the academic, business and civic communities, “GreenTown” illustrated the close ties between Grand Rapids and GVSU.

“I’m always amazed when I go out and talk with mayors across the country and I talk about our partnership with Grand Valley, and it’s like a light bulb goes on for them,” Heartwell said. “They’ve never really thought they could work with their local university or their local college in that way. This has been a hugely important relationship for us, and I think it’s mutually beneficial. It’s been a good one for Grand Valley. We’re growing together, we’re learning about sustainability together, we’re practicing sustainability together and we’re measuring our progress together.”

GVSU President Thomas Haas echoed Heartwell’s praise, calling the city and university staff’s cooperation a “remarkable partnership.”

“We’re also encouraging others in the educational community – in the K-12 – and in the businesses, both in the profit and not-for-profit,” Haas explained. “So we’re providing some of that catalyst between the city and Grand Valley to get others more interested in sustainability practices, understanding more about what type of return they can get for these types of investments. I’m really pleased with the efforts the university and the city of Grand Rapids have engaged in, and I know it will continue in years to come.”

Along with other accolades, GVSU was named one of the Kaplan College Guide 2009’s top 25 green and environmentally responsible schools. Spurred by student interest, GVSU now recognizes sustainability as one of its core values and features it in the university’s 2010-15 strategic plan.

“We are actually being pushed in a very positive way by our students,” Haas said. “They want to see Grand Valley be one of the leaders in this regard.”

Christopher agreed, saying about 14 percent of all student credit hours at GVSU are in sustainability subject matter.

“I can safely tell you that at GVSU I’m surrounded by students that are concerned about the environment. They want to serve and make a difference,” he said. “I think there is great not only hope, but if we provide them the opportunities, that’s the leadership that’s going to step up in this space.”

Students and faculty interested in learning more about the initiative are encouraged to take advantage of Campus Sustainability Week on Oct. 23-30.

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