Michigan Green Communities bestows “gold status” to the City of Grand RapidsPart I: Greening vulnerable neighborhoods and growing understanding

Citing the City of Grand Rapids Strategic Plan update, Michigan Green Communities has awarded “gold status” to the City of Grand Rapids. The Strategic Plan focuses on sustainability carbon reductions, green space, water quality, waste and health disparities.
One facet of the city’s green strategy is increasing the city’s tree canopy to 40%. Thanks in part to city planting efforts and thousands of trees planted by nonprofit Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, Alison Sutter, the city’s sustainability and strategy officer, reports that the city’s tree canopy has reached 34%. Trees not only clean the air, produce oxygen, cool neighborhoods and sequester storm water, they also reveal which Grand Rapids neighborhoods have been the most economically disenfranchised.

Income challenged neighborhoods, which are also home to many of the city’s people of color, have the least tree cover. As tree planting efforts have focused on shade equity, the city’s climate resilience efforts also focus on creating equity for these neighborhoods — the places where neighbors are most likely to suffer from the results of climate change.

“There are three things that are going to be happening in our community: it will be hotter, wetter and there will be more and more extreme weather events,” Sutter says. “We are asking which communities will be impacted the most and be the most vulnerable to those changes and what can be done to plan and prepare for those changes.”


Pollution from nearby industries and roadways has raised risks for asthma, allergies and pulmonary issues in these neighborhoods for decades. Childhood lead poisoning rates here have rivaled those of the Flint water crisis. In 2015, Grand Rapids ZIP code 49507 led the state for the highest number of lead-poisoned children — African American children were lead-poisoned at twice the rate of white children in Grand Rapids as recently as 2015. The neighbors living in these neighborhoods are at highest risk of disease and death from impending climate change. Thus, it makes perfect sense that they are from and center in the city’s climate resilience efforts.

Because Grand Rapids’ communities of color have higher truck traffic, more industries, and more buses, air pollution disproportionately impacts them. One strategy the city is considering is creating an electric car share program in these neighborhoods.

“A lot of people cannot afford electric vehicles,” Sutter says. “How are we helping to make sure that technology is accessible to everyone in our community?”


The city is getting ready to launch a climate risk and vulnerability assessment to identify who is most vulnerable to climate changes. Considerations include geography, income, education, disabilities and language spoken. Adaptation strategies for identified neighborhoods could include increasing tree canopy, creating more access to green space and better stormwater management to prevent flooding. In addition, residents are being asked to complete a three question survey to help inform the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan
Sutter notes that the majority of natural disaster deaths are due to extreme heat. Housing in Grand Rapids income challenged neighborhoods rarely has central air, insulation or tree cover to cool the indoor environment.

“We might need to look at how do we support getting some air conditioning in the homes, especially for the elderly [for whom] those conditions are very dangerous,” Sutter says. “Our forestry department has really been measuring where we have more tree canopy and where we have less tree canopy and have been very intentional in our efforts to maintain tree canopy in areas that are more deficient.”

Grant funding in the amount of $125,000 will pay for renovating five homes in neighborhoods where Grand Rapids’ most vulnerable residents live. The renovations will help reduce electricity and natural gas bills as well as help homeowners address back taxes and code compliance issues — and lower the homes’ carbon emissions. The program will focus on residents with health issues like respiratory disease or risk for lead poisoning. The city is also looking at ways to support these neighborhoods during power outages, which impact income-challenged residents disproportionately.

The city is also embarking on an educational campaign to help all residents understand the need to not only slow climate change but be ready to adapt to its catastrophic consequences. In addition to subscribing to a monthly newsletter, residents can complete a free, four-part online training series of 15-minute modules.The first module is Climate Change 101.

“The first key strategy is sharing that knowledge, awareness, and understanding — that's true for our staff, for the community, for everyone. We're trying to help everybody understand climate change holistically,” Sutter concludes. “And we are leading with climate justice and environmental justice.”

Next up in Rapid Growth Media Development News, Michigan Green Communities bestows “gold status” to the City of Grand Rapids Part II: Greening municipal buildings and services.

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor.
Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks.

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