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Rapid Blog: As GR takes national spotlight at smart growth conference, a push for equity & inclusion

Montana Krukowski

At a national conference for the country's best city planners and policy makers, Grand Rapids was cited as a place where "elite" leaders can see the connection between economic, environmental and social concerns - and create opportunities for the region. In addition to this, Montana Krukowski, who attended the conference, advocates for leveling the playing field and creating a city where all voices, not just those of the elite, are heard.
The New Partners for Smart Growth  recently wrapped in Portland, Oregon. It’s a conference for the nation’s city builders and policy creators to meet, discuss, and share knowledge regarding the wide range of challenges and successes cities face in today’s world.

During the kickoff, in a room filled with 1,200 of the country’s best city planners and policy makers, Grand Rapids was spotlighted by one of the keynote speakers. Why? Well, according to keynote speaker Chris Benner, a professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at University of California Santa Cruz, Grand Rapids is a model city for “elite driven regional stewardship.” Taken from his book, Equity, Growth, and Community: What the Nation Can Learn from America's Metro Areas, Benner (who spoke in Grand Rapids a couple years ago) describes elite stewards as those who can: “see the connection between economic, environmental, and social concerns and they know how to ‘connect the dots’ to create opportunities for their regions… Stewardship means the careful and responsible management of something entrusted in our care.”

I took this proclamation as a mixed review. Does that mean our region is dependent upon these successful individuals to create more growth and opportunity? Or are these elite supplementing an already healthy and diverse working class? I would argue the former is more characteristic of the Grand Rapids we all know and love. The Van Andel Arena, the Devos Place, Artprize, and more: all of these community staples are a direct result of “elite investment.”

Now, I must give my thanks to the elite, as, without them, it seems Grand Rapids could not be thriving. However, in his book, Benner talks about how other cities have created an equal growth, and the examples absolutely represent how a more diverse and representative Grand Rapids can be created. When the new Michigan State University medical research center is completed, what percent of the workers will be local hires? How will the diversity of employees represent the demographics of the city? These are questions Grand Rapids must answer to sustain growth in an ever-changing globally competitive atmosphere.

I love Grand Rapids. I’ve worked for a local NGO, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, as well as for the city’s Office of Energy and Sustainability, and it was clear that the front lines of growth and inclusivity are represented by individuals who care and understand and cherish the diversity of our city. These are individuals working towards better representation and building strong relationships with community leaders and diverse organizations.

It cannot be emphasized how important input from all Grand Rapidians is — and how much it is needed. The biggest lesson learned during the conference, and from current research, is that a successful city is one that is as inclusive as possible. Cities that make plans from the bottom up, cities that understand the needs of its citizens, are cities that sustain healthy and happy growth. Grand Rapids in walking down that path, but it must be maintained for our city to continue seeing the successes we’ve experienced.

If you’re interested to learn more about the conference please go here. All presentations were recorded and will be made freely available by March.

To download a free copy of Equity, Growth, and Community: What the Nation Can Learn from America's Metro Areas, you can go here.

Montana Krukowski is a longtime Grand Rapids resident and is attending the University of Michigan for his Master’s degree in Environmental Policy and Planning at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He admits he was a unicorn in his past life. You can reach Montana by sending him an email at monty.krukowski@gmail.com.
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