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Mayor George Heartwell’s heart for the people of Grand Rapids and his view that caring for the environment is a matter of morals catapulted the city to the top honor as 2012 US Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Award Winner for Large Cities. In simple terms, this award establishes Grand Rapids as one of the “greenest” cities in the United States by the Conference of Mayors' standards.
Initiated by Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols on Feb. 16, 2005, the Climate Protection Agreement sets about doing what federal and state governments have thus far failed to do – aligning green house gas (GHG) emissions to the standards set by the Kyoto Protocol. The agreement targets twelve specific areas including inventorying and reducing GHG emissions, preserving open space, reducing sprawl, increasing the tree canopy and promoting bicycle trails and public transit.
When asked how a renowned conservative city like Grand Rapids could shoot to the top of green cities, Heartwell notes that the root word of conservative is “conserve” and emphasizes the spiritual and moral imperative of caring for all life.
“We can’t count on the federal or state governments to rescue us,” Heartwell said. “It’s like that Gandhi quote, ‘be the change you wish to see in the world.’ Each of us individually can and must do small things that collectively add up. Grand Rapids has and will continue to do so. It’s our moral imperative."
This moral imperative guided him when it came time to choose which organizations would receive money from the $25,000 Wal-Mart grant that accompanies the award. The money is going to two organizations for efforts that directly support environmental initiatives. Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, a nonprofit organization established to acquire and develop parkland, will receive $12,500 to continue its tree planting initiatives with Releaf Michigan. In recent years, the group has helped to increase the urban tree canopy to 36.4 percent and has set an ambitious goal of reaching 40 percent coverage by 2030, a net increase of 185,000 trees.
The West Michigan Environmental Action Committee (WMEAC) will receive the other $12,500 for planning to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Climate change is already upon us, the mayor said, and will likely be with us for generations. WMEAC will continue to research and establish best practices for handling extreme weather events like heat waves and storms. These extreme events, he explains, impact the most vulnerable citizens – infants, children and the elderly – the hardest.
Recognizing what severe climate changes could mean for the people of the city, the mayor is not one to back down from a challenge. An early signer of the Climate Protection Agreement, he addressed each of the twelve targeted areas in turn, enabling the city to show more positive growth in reducing its green house gas emissions than any other city in the nation.
Heartwell has saved the city money by pushing for energy efficiency and water conservation policies that have reduced consumption of both by 15 percent, three years before the established 2015 target for this goal. He established an innovative energy audit program in the neighborhoods, added solar panels to the city’s existing LEED-certified buildings and set up geothermal projects at the fire stations. While endorsing the "25 by 25" ballot measure, he believes that Grand Rapids, which has more LEED-certified buildings per capita than any other city in the United States, can set the bar higher. Thus, he implemented a goal for the city to go from 22 percent to 100 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020.
It’s all about outcomes, says Heartwell – improving efficiency and reducing costs, which is what having the entire city fleet of police cars, garbage trucks and other vehicles running on alterative fuels does. Heartwell has pushed for and has seen double-digit increases in bus ridership on The Rapid, the six-city transit system that services the community. Under his leadership, the city has invested in hybrid electric buses and was the first Michigan city to win a federal grant for a bus rapid transit system.
Overall, much of the environmental work involves thinking outside the box and coming up with innovative and creative solutions. For example, the old Butterworth Landfill with its clay cap is an EPA Superfund site, wholly unsuitable for standard development. Its 130 acres would make the perfect location for a solar energy installation, the mayor suggests, enabling Grand Rapids to be less dependent on the aging electrical grid infrastructure. What would that mean for the people of Grand Rapids? They would be less likely to suffer through severe power outages, especially when hit by extreme storms.