Citizen engagement drives GR Forward

As Grand Rapids’ river restoration project continues, a common question is where citizen engagement can find its niche in the overall process. The river is a public resource—its fate concerns not only this city, but also residents and businesses along the river’s banks throughout West Michigan.

Back when the Green Grand Rapids Plan was in its incipient stages, the City’s planning department hosted a series of forums, beginning in 2008, to gather public input and encourage community engagement with the proposed project. Although that project is now firmly in permitting mode, citizen engagement will remain integral to the process.

During the planning phase of GR Forward, a plan encompassing the river restoration, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc (DGRI), the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Grand Rapids WhiteWater drew on the engagement of Grand Rapids and West Michigan residents, businesses, and organizations.

“The planning partners cast a wide net to make sure we reached a large and diverse audience,” said Jay Steffen, assistant planning director. “We held dozens of meetings in neighborhoods and surrounding communities to ensure we were capturing their input.”

“The importance of access was a number one priority that came out of our engagement,” said Tim Kelly, Planning Manager of DGRI. “The design choices are direct reflections of the outreach we did during GR Forward.”

“The engagement is something we’re really proud of for our organization—we take that stuff very seriously,” said Kelly. “We want to make sure that we aren’t just engaged with people for the sake of having a conversation; we really want people to see how their ideas and their voices are reflected in projects going forward.” GR Forward maintains a survey to continue receiving citizen input on the plan, which is now in permitting mode.  

“I think the biggest takeaway is, the work that went into GR Forward is translating into real and substantive change, both in projects and in the ongoing design. We are always committed to engagement, to making sure people are involved in the important decisions that are being made,” Kelly said. The survey enables citizens to do this, for any or all of the plan’s key goals, including the first: “restore the river as a draw and create a connected and equitable river corridor.”

“We are always looking for interested and passionate people,” Kelly said, “who want to make downtown and the city as a whole as great as it can be.”

“The river belongs to all of us—and all of us isn’t just Grand Rapids; it includes all the communities downstream who are going to be affected by this decision,” said Rachel Hood, Director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council. “Making sure that the public is fully informed of choices that are being made is critical. Citizens need to be asking informed questions about flood mitigation, about invasive species, and about native species populations.”

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