Thursday, April 23, 2009

An Evening with George Heartwell and Suzanne Schulz

One week ago tonight, George Heartwell, the Mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and his planning director Suzanne Schulz regaled a large audience that included Mayor Duffy at the Salem United Church of Christ on Bittner Street. A duo whose experience in a city with striking parallels to Rochester resonated throughout the thoughts and minds of the assembled, Heartwell and Schulz proffered both the semantic and the schematic in a manner that inspired a cognizance that taking action to strengthen the urban nucleus is not only worthwhile, but also necessary on multiple levels.

Now that I'm done pretending that I know how to write a compelling opening paragraph, I'll get into some biographical information on the two speakers.

George Heartwell was previously the Director of the Community Leadership Institute at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids as well as a professor in its undergraduate study program. It is no coincidence that his public speaking ability reminds one of ministerial uplifting as he is indeed also an ordained minister. A previous Ward Commissioner (in Grand Rapids, the Mayor is elected at large to preside over the commission), Heartwell is now serving in his second term as Mayor.

Suzanne Schulz, godmother of the 'Green Grand Rapids' initiative, stepped into urban planning as a project manager on the first Grand Rapids master plan devised since the tragic era of demolishing architecturally significant city halls to create concrete plazas. She does things the right way, seeking out the true stakeholders (Eg. Residents) where they live and incorporating their vision. The green space driven master plan update and her adamant stance on proper urban form has earned Schulz accolades from nationally prominent New Urbanists such as Jeff Speck (Co-author of Suburban Nation).

While the format of the presentation was in three acts, with Mayor Heartwell opening and closing, I will treat each as its own entity for purposes of description.

Heartwell kicked off the proceedings by hammering home exactly how similar Rochester and Grand Rapids really are. From populations hovering around 200,000 to an almost identical age distribution, (though Rochester is more dense and ethnically diverse), the parallels are impressive. While Rochester was producing more flour than any place in the world, Grand Rapids was creating more wood furniture than any other municipality. Today, the Grand Rapids economy is driven by office furniture, colleges, and hospitals as Rochester could simply substitute imaging science for office furniture and match colleges and hospitals. The manufacturing remaining in Grand Rapids that still comprises 23% of their workforce is of a higher skill level than classic manufacturing much like Rochester's Harris RF Communications Division. Finally, the Grand and Genesee Rivers are similar in size, stature, and the fact that they both buck the continental divide.

Comparisons complete, Mayor Heartwell went on to tout some of the achievements of Grand Rapids while exposing some personal character traits that make him an appropriate leader in the areas of community and municipal environmental stewardship. According to the Mayor, each action taken by his office must satisfy all three points of his Triple Bottom Line in that there are facets that address Social Justice (namely the fighting of poverty), Environmental Integrity, and Economic Prudence.

To this end, Mayor Heartwell jumps right out as an advocate for the eradication of childhood lead poisoning exposure. Despite his religious background mentioned earlier, he values highly the scientific method and the importance of observable indicators to put backing behind sustainability plans. If I am allowed to criticize, I'd just say that the Mayor has a little techno-triumphantism in him. He took the commendable action of declaring that 100% of Grand Rapids' municipal electricity would come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020, but prefaced it with the familiar refrain that "Some combination of wind, solar, and something that may not have even been invented yet," would provide for such an achievement as opposed to straight up conservation. The Mayor's crowning achievement in the sustainability ranks appears to be a collaborative set up with the city school district, local colleges, and over 150 other signatories (including the City of Chicago). First intended to assist large local institutions in the development of sustainability plans using a common template, the Grand Rapids Community Partners now exists to 'enrich and secure the future of the Greater Grand Rapids Community that will result in preserving our natural resources, providing economic viability, and fostering social justices.'

Suzanne Schulz had the unenviable task during the public lecture to cram 90 minutes worth of material likely shown to city planning department personnel into a tidy 30 minute exposition. She did so by heralding the efforts in Grand Rapids and displaying their applicability to just about any metropolitan center. Some interesting techniques included defining a subset of certain 'good design' requirements such as minimum window transparency in plans that would allow a developer to bypass planning commission hearings.

A new zoning ordinance adopted in November of 2007 by Grand Rapids included heretofore unknown concepts to me including LEED-ND and CPTED (Good Wiki Article!!). LEED-ND finally addresses the issue that a building built according to a sustainable plan is a net loser if it takes up residence in the middle of a parking lagoon just off a six lane highway twenty miles from the center of town. The ND stands for Neighborhood Development, implying that it really does matter where a LEED certified building is located. Also, CPTED stands for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. The implications here are generally related by Jane Jacobs as 'eyes on the street' as well as the importance of active users of the street at all times. Explicity exercised in the built environment, CPTED also seeking to rebuild a social framework developed through actual human contact (as opposed to automobile accidents) sorely lacking in suburban design, one that behavioral critics might point to as promoting proper public decorum in the past.

The balance of the Schulz presentation was meant to emphasize to Rochester that several emergent practices such as focus on walkability, creating a solid street wall, promoting a balanced transporation system, designating future mixed-use centers to act as Transit Oriented Development nodes, thinning streets, providing bike parking, and separating storm and sanitary sewers have been performed there to great success.

To conclude the recap of the Heartwell/Schulz experience, four major concepts combine to satisfy the triple bottom line when steering toward a sustainable future for an entire community is the objective:
  • Community Ownership
  • A Focus on Smart Growth
  • Regulation for Quality Design
  • Green Infrastructure's Impact on Quality of Life

I'd just like to throw in a couple of quick event announcements. First, Critical Mass is tomorrow, April 23rd and the weather is predicted to be excellent so get your bike chain oiled up! More importantly, the RRCDC is hosting the 2009 Annual Conference of the Association for Community Design. The featured speaker will be Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia's planning director. The conference runs from June 4th to the 7th with various panel discussions, working sessions, case study presentations, and neighborhood walking tours of the Susan B. Anthony and Marketview Heights historic areas.

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