Reviving a City: the Grand Rapids Model

June 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm CDT

In an earlier post, I talked about how small urban plans can be as transformative as big ones – and are often more likely to be implemented. Grand Rapids, Mich., actively engages in both. Cities in Michigan are required to update their master plan every five years. In Grand Rapids, it’s a grueling process.

“We engage citizens to an extreme degree,” Mayor George Heartwell says.

Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell

"A typical planning process for us is an 18-month extended process that involves hundreds of meetings in neighborhoods, church basements or school buildings, or the social halls where citizens are coming and giving their opinions on a plan for their area or city. Then our professional planners take that information, and they work with a steering committee that is broadly representative of the city and develops preliminary proposals and takes them back out to the people again.”

But thankfully, that process isn’t the only one by which the city effects change. During the master plan update, a number of citizen-led initiatives were able to get under way with city support. Instead of waiting for the big plan to be finished, Grand Rapids moved quickly on several smaller plans. A group came together and formed a nonprofit, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, to work with the city on maintaining and developing its parkland – work which the mayor admits the city can’t fund itself.

Another issue that the public has taken up with city support is the restoration of the city’s namesake rapids. During Michigan’s logging past, the Grand River was tamed to allow logs to flow downstream more easily. Now a group of kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts want to bring the whitewater back. It’s a tricky balancing act of preserving fish and wildlife habitats as well as calmer waters for rowing. The mayor is working with all sides to create a workable plan.

In another case, an organization of bike enthusiasts formed to keep Grand Rapids focused on its goal of creating 100 miles of bike lanes by 2015. They are advocating at the state and local levels for complete streets grants, says Mayor Heartwell.

That task is getting harder in some ways. Much like the situation in Tampa I wrote about earlier, the mayor of Michigan’s second-largest city has fewer tools in his box due to cuts at the state level.

“Governor Snyder ended many of the tax credits that we had available to us and replaced them with an appropriation that provides activity that is just a shadow of what the activity was when it was a tax credit. The tools we use are obsolete property or historic preservation tax credits, or making infrastructure investments in creating city streetscapes that feel safe and are interesting and beautiful. We plant flowers any place we can. Ornamental lighting and sidewalks are wider than they perhaps once were, providing separation from the street and opportunities for restaurants to have outdoor seating.”

On the flip side of the coin, so to speak, are the contributions of some of the city’s wealthy benefactors. “We are very conscious of the fact that Grand Rapids would not be the vibrant city that it is today if it weren't for the fact that a number of people have made their fortunes here and have elected to stay here and raise their families. They're investing in the city both for economic gain and for philanthropic purposes,” Mayor Heartwell says.

It’s more than just philanthropy. One of the programs having a big impact on Grand Rapid’s reputation is a project not just funded but founded by a member of the billionaire DeVos family. He didn’t just write a big check, he’s actively involved in the creation and running of the organization. ArtPrize is a week-long art contest that spreads throughout the entire downtown area. Thousands compete from around the world for one of the largest cash prizes of any art contest anywhere – which is decided by popular vote.

All of this is part of what Mayor Heartwell hopes is a transformation of the city, which lost population in the 2000s but has seen that reverse in the early part of this decade. The mayor believes that more younger people are choosing to stay in the city instead of moving to other states and that aging boomers will retire where they are instead of packing up for the Sunbelt. If Grand Rapids can build on recent trends, the mix of public and private support for plans both small and, um, grand, will be the formula for other cities to emulate.

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