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“To truly be a resilient community you can't just pay attention to one leg of the stool. You really have to look at all three,” according to Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — For Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, shaping a “resilient” city takes a holistic perspective.
The mayor of Grand Rapids, a city of just under 200,000 people and Michigan’s second largest after Detroit, doesn’t have to spend much time thinking about natural disasters, outside of the potential for flooding as ice thaws each spring on the Grand River.
But as one of Michigan’s few growing urban areas, issues like resiliency and equity continue to shape policymaking in Grand Rapids. For Bliss, that means keeping in mind the trifecta of environmental sustainability, social justice and equitable economic development.
“Personally I think resilience is about more than just environmental sustainability. I equate it more with our commitment around the triple bottom line,” Bliss told Route Fifty in a phone interview. “To truly be a resilient community you can't just pay attention to one leg of the stool. You really have to look at all three.”
Coming from a background in social work and having served a decade on the Grand Rapids City Commission, Bliss became mayor in 2016. It was an opportune time, as the city was several years into an economic rebound that’s seen significant growth in the core business district and several neighborhoods, including new residential development, bars and restaurants, as well as an increasing number of startups.
But issues of inequity and gentrification, which historically have not been at the forefront of city policymaking, are now front and center for Bliss and other city officials.
“I've always had a very holistic view of the work that we do within the city knowing that it takes more than just focusing on one area to truly make the city a strong, resilient city,” Bliss said. “I've always had a very multi-pronged approach to the work we do knowing that we really have to address multiple issues at once.”
To Bliss, that’s particularly true in the city’s real estate market, which has been called one of the hottest in the country.
“Ten years ago we were addressing blight and foreclosed homes and now we're addressing affordable housing and a lack of housing stock,” she said. “I know how quickly the world can change and so I think that being resilient is being able to adapt.”
City data shows good reason for municipal policymakers in Grand Rapids to be paying attention to issues of economic inequity.
The median income for Latinos and African-Americans in the city stands at $31,000 and $25,000 respectively. The total median income in Grand Rapids stands at $42,000 while whites enjoy a median income of $48,000.
Rates of unemployment, poverty and educational attainment also show great disparity between whites and minorities in the city.
In 2015 Grand Rapids was called out as the second-worst city in the nation for African-Americans by Forbes.
But minority entrepreneurs and other stakeholders note that those trends and data points stand as the impetus in the push for grassroots change.
“While I’ve been happy about the recent energy that’s transpiring here in Grand Rapids, a lot of the recent energy wasn’t birthed out of some revelation that fell out the sky. I think it came from immense political pressure,” Jonathan Jelks, a co-founder of minority tech incubator Midwest Tech Project told local business publication MiBiz late last year. “These are things that I don’t think a city that is looking to be respected as a global community can afford to continue to suffer in the age of transparency.”
On an environmental front city, leaders have continued to push for policies that they hope result in more equitable outcomes, particularly around housing.
The issue of lead, particularly in paint within older homes continues to present issues for the city, as evidenced by a recent report by Grand Rapids nonprofit organization Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. A 2017 report by the organization found that the number of children with lead poisoning in Kent County—of which Grand Rapids is the county seat—is 2.5 times the national average and Bliss said that number continues to climb.
One census tract on Grand Rapids’ southeast side had the highest number of children with lead poisoning in the state, according to a report from the Michigan Department of Community Health.
Bliss said the city continues to work with partners at the state and county levels to further address the problem. Additionally, the mayor said she plans to form a committee of community stakeholders in the coming weeks to look at steps Grand Rapids can take to better mitigate the risks of lead poisoning as well.
“The unfortunate thing is we're just not getting to enough homes for remediation,” Bliss said, adding that she views lead poisoning as an environmental justice issue. “In the last two years we've had an uptick in the number of kids that have tested positive for lead. Even though we've done a lot of work in the past—particularly around remediation and testing—clearly we have a lot more work to do.”
Bliss said city leaders have sought to educate themselves about how to better handle these challenges. The city is currently part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program to learn more best practices for employing data to drive the policymaking process.
And last year, city officials participated in a fellowship program with the Rose Center for Public Leadership to learn to better shape its development policies in a more equitable manner.
Of that work, Bliss said that municipal stakeholders learned of some “blind spots” in its economic development policies and has begun the work of addressing those.
To Bliss, the work with the Rose Center underscored the notion that the city needs to “be much more intentional when it comes to economic development to make sure there's greater opportunity for everyone.”
The city’s work around social and economic equity also played into its recent decision to appoint its new city manager. This week the city commission—of which Bliss is an at-large voting member—voted unanimously to approve a three-year contract for Mark Washington, a veteran assistant city manager in Austin, Texas.
To Bliss, the hire of Washington is “critical” due to the various growing pains that a city like Austin has had to overcome and mayor said she believes that experience will carry over to helping Grand Rapids navigate many of those same challenges.
“I think what is impressive to me is his experience in innovation and equity and then also coming from a city where they have wrestled with a lot of the struggles we're trying to figure out,” Bliss said of Washington’s experience.
“He can bring that experience with him, whether its around public transit or economic development or affordable housing,” Bliss said. “He has a lot of experience and he has first hand knowledge of what Austin has done well and what they've struggled with and where they have tried something and failed.”
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Nick Manes is a journalist based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Follow him on Twitter at @nickrmanes