Mayor tells legal professionals about sustainability efforts


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

There is more to “sustainability” than the environment.

So says Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who refers to the components of true sustainability as three portals to enter its arena. Heartwell spoke to the West Michigan Chapter of NALS, the association for legal professionals, last Thursday on the subject of what the City of Grand Rapids has done within that arena.

The three portals, according to Heartwell and others, are social equity, environmental harmony, and economic vitality — and the City of Grand Rapids has attained many of its goals in all three areas.

The term “triple bottom line” was first used by John Elkington in the late 1990s, writing for the business community. The same terminology was popularized by the writings of William McDonough, a pioneer in the area of sustainability who has spent his fair share of time in Michigan.

The term sustainability itself is open to widely differing interpretations. The most widely-used definition is itself a little vague: that of the Brundtland Commission convened by the United Nations. The definition, developed in 1987, says “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Grand Rapids has thrown itself wholeheartedly into sustainability, broadly defined, as a goal and as a frame of mind.

As Heartwell put it, “People all around the globe started feeling it’s not enough to profit in business if all around families are suffering and you’re stealing the resources form future generations. And yet this movement is thoroughly hopeful that its adherents can survive and prosper if we work together.”

To operationalize those plans, one of the first things the city did was to partner with colleges in the area, most particularly Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University, to form the Community Sustainability Partnership. The group has a long list of endorsing partners.

Though many other law firms have their own sustainability plans, only Price, Heneveld, Cooper, Dewitt & Litton has endorsed the partnership as of June 2011.

The city set well-defined, measurable goals early in the process. Eventually, a well-developed sustainability plan for 2011-2015 came to guide all of the city’s activities, as Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong recently observed in the press. The plan is tied to fiscal planning, so is integral in department management.

The city has already achieved many of the goals in that plan.

The goals are organized in terms of the three “portals,” but the one that has gained Grand Rapids the most national attention has been the environmental portal.

In 2005, the city set a goal of getting at least 20% of its energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric by 2008. That goal was met early, and the current (2011-2015) plan calls for “at least 30% of energy use from renewable June 30, 2013.” (It also targets a 10% or better increase in energy efficiency by June 30, 2015.)

But Mayor Heartwell told the NALS group that those goals are still not good enough, and he thinks his goal of 100% renewably-sourced energy by 2020 is achievable. At the same time, working toward that goal will result in beneficial economic activity.

The City of Grand Rapids is developing its own wind source at its water filtration plant property on Lake Michigan.

Heartwell cited other examples of initiatives which benefited more than one of the triple bottom line areas. A particular success story is Get the Lead Out, which Heartwell was instrumental in forming in 2001 before he was elected mayor.

Lead poisoning causes permanent damage to the neurological systems, and therefore learning capacity, of young victims. Community leaders were alarmed to discover that lead from older homes was found in 46% of children in the 49503 Baxter neighborhood. “We have children who are going off to school already with one hand tied behind their backs,” Heartwell commented.

Heartwell and other partners formed Get the Lead Out to address educating the public about the challenge, testing for lead, and remediation of some of the most at-risk homes.
The initiative, now under the direction of the Healthy Homes Coalition, recently celebrated having eliminated lead risk in over 1,000 homes, also bringing grant money and jobs to the area  — and there has been a 78% reduction in the number of lead-poisoned children citywide since 2003.

Heartwell also drew the NALS professional’s attention to the revitalization of the abandoned Federal building, now purchased by Ferris State University’s Kendall School of Art and Design, which will house the Wege Center for Sustainable Design.

That center will be highly useful for developers, because, as Mayor Heartwell points out, “It has become part of the culture of our community to build or redevelop using LEED standards.” LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification for “green” building practices, and Grand Rapids has both 11% of all the LEED certified buildings in the U.S., and more LEEd buildings per capita than any other city.

The nation has made note of all this environmental progress. Possibly the greatest honor according Grand Rapids is its designation as the nation’s most sustainable mid-size city by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the United Nations University, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and others have added their kudos for the city’s efforts.

Mayor Heartwell issued two challenges to the NALS members present. He asked them to promote having a sustainability plan at the law firms employing them. And, after asking for a show of hands which indicated only six or seven lived in Grand Rapids, he requested that they contact their local governments and ask officials to create a sustainability plan or in some other way join in the sustainability effort.

“The past two decades have taught us we can’t continue to live as if people and natural resources were expendable,” Heartwell said.

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