In many ways, Grand Rapids is a tale of two cities. One is a story of success in green building, economic growth, and renewal of aging neighborhoods. Here, initiatives like Michigan street’s Medical Mile and Grand Valley State University’s downtown expansion have brought in scores of affluent professional residents while downtown has transformed from a ghost town into a hotspot.
The other story tells about people with income challenges and people of color facing overwhelming economic, housing, and health challenges. Here, disparities in infant mortality, longevity, income, and incarceration underscore the presence of institutional racism and a lack of living wage jobs.
The City of Grand Rapids has been working hard to change these conflicting narratives. It has adopted a Racial Equity Plan, established a department of Diversity and Inclusion, joined the Racial Equity Here Cohort, was selected for The Mayor’s Challenge, and recently created a Rental Assistance Center for low-income households. Because of its work for equity across these and other initiatives, Grand Rapids has been chosen as one of 12 cities to join the National League of Cities (NLC) Cities of Opportunity initiative.
Alex Melton“Grand Rapids has really been undertaking a lot of initiatives related to equity,” says Alex Melton, City of Grand Rapids community liaison. “We were able to work with a lot of leading experts in the public sector to bring together all of our equity-related data sets. This is work we always knew that we wanted to do, that is really important for the city. This gave us the opportunity to really hone in on how to do this the best way.”
Other cities chosen for the Initiative are Lansing, Michigan; Atlanta and East Point, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Charlotte, North Carolina; Fort Collins, Colorado; Hopewell and Roanoke, Virginia; Huntington, West Virginia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Rancho Cucamonga, California. In its pilot phase, this NLC effort will bring these cities together to implement cross-cutting and collaborative approaches in three challenge areas: economic opportunity, healthy and affordable housing, and city planning and design.
“Some of the cities are vastly different in terms of geography and demographic makeup, but a lot of the issues are similar. For example, affordable housing is an issue across the nation,” Melton says. “It will really be beneficial for us to learn from bigger cities at their level and scale and then change our approach, scale it to Grand Rapids.”
As new initiatives are moved forward locally, the City plans on engaging community members for input and feedback. Residents will be engaged via social media, focus groups, and other outreach methods that are tracked to ensure voices from all neighborhoods and demographics are heard.
“It will be very worthwhile to get residents’ feedback upfront,” Melton says.
The NLC states that the goal is “to help local leaders build cities where all residents can reach their potential and live productive, fulfilling, and healthy lives in thriving communities — and ultimately ensure cities of opportunity for all residents.” In October, City of Grand Rapids representatives will begin working with their peers from the other cities in Atlanta.
“I am thrilled that Grand Rapids will collaborate with other cities on ways to improve factors that affect the health of our communities and our residents,” says Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. “We have many exciting initiatives rooted in racial equity that align with the Cities of Opportunity priority areas.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids