Mayor Rosalynn Bliss: A Sustainable Year in Review

In her inaugural State of the City Address, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss laid out a number of ambitious goals regarding environmental sustainability. One year later, she has held true to her word and made bounds toward these goals.

Environmental sustainability remains a top priority in her role as Mayor. It is one of the four legs of her strategic plan: social impact, economic impact, environmental impact and the most recent addition, governance—the concept of government reacting directly to the needs of the community.

Bliss has a mutualistic relationship with the community in all facets of the strategic plan. There are communal programs that she has inherited, such as the Mayor’s Annual Grand River Cleanup. Back in early September of 2016, Bliss put on mud boots and got her hands dirty, cleaning the banks of the Grand River alongside 750 volunteers.

But there are also programs that Bliss has implemented to get the community involved with environmental impact, such as the Mayor’s Greening Initiative. An environmental goal for Grand Rapids is for a 40 percent tree canopy citywide.

Through the Greening Initiative and with the invaluable assistance of the community, Grand Rapids was able to plant over 2,000 trees last year, with over 500 in downtown alone, raising the tree canopy to just shy of 35 percent.

The Mayor’s Greening Initiative this year will take place on Arbor Day, April 28, with the goal of planting over 500 trees in a day.

In addition to a more widespread tree canopy, Bliss also hopes to increase public green spaces. She has consistently asserted the need for parks within safe walking distance of every child in Grand Rapids. With her collaboration and the help from other community partners, the Parks Department just released a draft of a Parks Master Plan that aims to do just that.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to really coalesce around what that vision of parks and the future looks like,” Bliss said.

With a background in social work and having spent most of her career working with kids, Bliss said, “Movement and nature and being outside and away from the screen are essential to brain development. It teaches kids to be creative and problem solve.”

Beyond the initiative of increasing the number of parks throughout the city, Bliss also established a new program last year called Connecting Children to Nature, to further facilitate getting children out of the classroom and into public spaces for experiential learning.

Mayor Bliss hopes to increase the amount of green throughout the city, while simultaneously reducing the dependency on nonrenewable energy sources.

“We still have a goal, and I believe we can get there, of 100 percent renewable energy [in public buildings] by 2025,” Bliss said.

She plans to reduce overall energy consumption by looking into options such as converting streetlights to LED, while also implementing various sources of on-site renewable energy throughout the city.

The city is in the process of building an anaerobic bio-digester at the Water Resources Recovery Facility, which will generate methane that can be harnessed and used as energy. The bio-digester will generate about 30 percent of the power used at the plant, which is one of the biggest sources of energy consumption in the city.

Bliss is also pushing for solar fields at both the Water Resources Recovery Facility and the Lake Michigan filtration plant, another heavy energy user.

With purchase agreements from energy companies providing most of the renewable energy in the past, Bliss said, “We will continue [using purchase agreements] to fill the gap, but I want to push more on-site renewables,” making the city more sustainable and energy independent.

Mayor Bliss is also working tirelessly to restore the integrity of our namesake, by bringing rapids back to the Grand River. In less than a mile stretch, right through the heart of downtown, there is an eighteen foot drop in the river, a natural marvel that exists nowhere else in the state of Michigan. Rapids used to exist in that stretch of river, but they were dammed off when lumber and furniture were Grand Rapids’ main exports.

There are numerous aspects of the river restoration project: the relocation of an endangered species of muscles, installing a barrier to prevent an invasive species from traveling upstream, dam removal, boat launch installation and returning boulders to the river to create the rapids.

The project of restoring the rapids is extensive and ambitious, but it is a project that Bliss would like to see start-to-finish in her tenure as Mayor. Despite the daunting nature of the task, the ball is already rolling with engineers working on the logistics and city officials working on the permitting process.

With a year behind her, Mayor Bliss continues to strive toward all legs of her strategic plan for the city, with environmental impact remaining a top priority. The work that Bliss is doing with the city to reduce negative environmental impact will not only benefit Grand Rapids’ current residents, but also the residents and community of the city for generations to come.

When asked about the importance of sustainability, Bliss said, “If we don’t change, and don’t change quickly, we are going to do irreparable damage to the earth and our community.”

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