Lansing Gets Green with Grand Rapids

Lansing-area green builder Gene Townsend says that, until recently, anyone around Mid-Michigan with interest in the sustainability principles of economic prosperity, social equity and environmental stability “had to go to Grand Rapids to learn it.”

Over the last decade, Grand Rapids and its green-minded mayor, George Heartwell, have pioneered much that is sustainable in the state: green building, green government, green master planning and green business practices, among other initiatives. So much green activity, in fact, that in 2007 the United Nations designated Grand Rapids as one of 32 cities in the world to be a Regional Center of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development.

But, to the satisfaction of Townsend and many others in Lansing, sustainability is catching on here, too.

Lansing’s Green Laundry List

The lengthy rundown of green work in the Lansing metro area extends far beyond the current green building bloom or the colorful rain gardens now sprouting up and down Michigan Avenue—a city project to capture polluting runoff from reaching the Grand River.

It includes the success of the “Greater Lansing Go Green” initiative and sustainable manufacturers and businesses like Peckham, Dowding Industries and Granger. Neighborhoods like Old Town and Eastside are undertaking green redevelopment projects, recycling drives, and farmer’s markets. Michigan State University is working on wind power and organic agriculture while Lansing Community College has developed an alternative energy technology specialist degree.
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has championed green initiatives in recent years, including green building downtown and creating the Greater Lansing Go Green initiative, which encourages area businesses and citizens to reduce their carbon footprint, among other things.

Taylor Heins, who directs the program, says the community response has been “tremendous” since it began in October, with more than 6,000 citizens and 200 businesses pledging to become more sustainable.

At a hot July afternoon dedication at Old Town’s Cedar Street School that Kincaid Building Group will redevelop into a green multiple-use office building, Bernero spoke about the importance of green redevelopment to a neighborhood’s vitality. As he put it, it is about “making nothing into something. . . . That is going to help the whole community.”

In Lansing, green building is among sustainability’s brightest spots, in part, because of early sustainability champions like Townsend, whose recent Kalamazoo Gateway project, a mix of green residential and retail, is planned for downtown.

Another leader is the Christman Company, which recently earned the first double platinum LEED certification in the nation for its headquarters renovation in the 1928 Mutual Building in Lansing. Christman is also currently finishing up the MSU College of Human Medicine Secchia Center, another LEED certified project, on Michigan Street in Grand Rapids.

Greening Like Grand Rapids

For all Lansing’s recent success, local sustainability proponents point to collaborations with their Grand Rapids counterparts as a key component to the flowering of green around the Capital City.     

Bernero continues to have ongoing discussions with Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell on ways to make their respective cities more sustainable.

And Heartwell is a good one with which to cabal. Heartwell’s is one of few cities in the nation that has a Sustainability Plan that sets its vision and agenda. He’s one of the country’s top green mayors, according to Kent E. Portney, a Tufts University professor and author of Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously.

In 2007, Heartwell and Bernero, as members of Michigan’s Urban Core Mayors, adopted a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that mandates that 15 percent of energy supplied to their communities by 2015 must come from renewable or alternative sources.

Townsend, Christman, Kincaid and others are collaborating with Grand Rapids counterparts through professional associations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Grand Rapids opened the first Michigan chapter of the USGBC in 2004; Lansing started up a growing branch last year.

Lansing still has far fewer green buildings, but it is coming on strong with nearly 30 commercial facilities registered for LEED certification, and more in the planning stages.
Smart Growth East Lansing

Good green building starts with good green planning, asserts Tim Dempsey, East Lansing’s community and economic development administrator. The city is shepherding forward Strathmore Development Company’s ambitious City Center II project, located on a brownfield site. The green project will have a boutique hotel, offices, condos, an MSU Wharton Center satellite performing arts theater and Naya Bistro & Wine Bar, a Grand Rapids-based upscale restaurant.

“City Center II reflects the essence of New Urbanism, or, Smart Growth: higher density,” Dempsey says. “The main building is going vertical—10 stories. [It’s] much more energy efficient built that way. It’s seeking LEED certification. Lots of residential units in a smaller land parcel versus the alternative, which is the single-story, sprawling development model all too familiar to most of us.”

Dempsey says Grand Rapids has been a positive model to emulate with its “Green Grand Rapids” master plan. Further collaborations are in the works. And, a vital resource for this progressive planning in both communities has been the research and recommendations by MSU experts.

Green Returns

Sustainability advocates and their know-how travel both directions on I-96. In Grand Rapids, Suzanne Schultz, city planner, has shared notes with Lansing planner Bill Rieske. His work with rain gardens, in turn, has impressed Rachel Hood, executive director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) in Grand Rapids.

Over the years, WMEAC has worked on a number of common regional issues with the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council (Mid-MEAC) in Lansing. For example, Mid-MEAC’s Jessica Yorko points to Grand Rapids’ West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF)—a project that grew out of WMEAC more than a decade ago—as a success.

Bill Stough started WMSBF, an association of Grand Rapids companies advancing socially and environmentally responsible “triple bottom line” practices. In 2002, Stough expanded this model to Lansing and elsewhere in the state. Though Central Michigan Sustainable Business Forum didn’t stick, former members do continue to preach and practice the gospel, including Gene Townsend, also a Mid-MEAC board member.

“I feel strongly that sustainability is going to be a core strategy for any surviving business” Stough says. “Any business that overlooks this, doesn’t take it seriously, or thinks it is a trend or fad, will have serious repercussions on its ability to compete.”

Stu Kogge is an aquatic biologist who lives and works in Lansing. His colleagues at JFNew, an ecological consulting firm, helped start Green Drinks— an informal meet-up of environmental sustainability-minded people—last year in Grand Rapids, and recently launched the program in Lansing. Kogge has made the trek several times to be part of Green Drinks Grand Rapids.

“I thought: ‘Why not here?’” Kogge said the July 10 at the kick-off of Green Drinks Lansing. “The DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality), DNR (Department of Natural Resources), MSU, green developers—all are here. Let’s get a lot of people together, get them thinking and doing.”

John A. Kinch, Ph.D., is a green-minded writer, professor and communications strategist. Find him at

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell

Greater Lansing Go Green Director Taylor Heins

Cristman Company's two LEAD Platinum Awards

Kalamazoo Gateway project

Cedar Street School

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

Signup for Email Alerts