Encouraging greener communitiesThe Michigan Green Communities Challenge promotes sustainability

Sustainability is a hot topic across many industries, businesses, and communities, regardless of their size and demographics. As more communities look to bolster their commitment and dedication to being sustainable, a statewide challenge is helping encourage more towns and cities to take on the challenge. 

Since 2009, Michigan Green Communities (MGC), a statewide sustainability benchmarking, networking, and technical assistance program, has promoted innovative solutions on local, regional and statewide levels.

The network is a partnership between the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Michigan Association of Counties (MAC), the Michigan Municipal League (MML), and the Michigan Townships Association (MTA). 

One of the organization’s key programs is the annual Michigan Green Communities (MGC) Challenge, which invites participants to engage in a sustainability challenge. As communities progress in that effort, there are different benchmarks and levels of certification. Forty-eight counties, cities, townships and villages took part in the annual MGC Challenge for their environmental leadership, energy efficiency, climate adaptation and resilience, and environmental justice. 

The challenge is designed to promote and facilitate peer learning and sharing to support innovative solutions, recognize communities for their sustainability accomplishments and challenge them to take further steps, and coordinate policies and leverage investments. It also aims to promote Michigan’s leadership role in environmental stewardship and green economic development and stimulate research and development of green technologies, products and processes. 

Consisting of 27 metrics and 127 action items surrounding planning, water, climate resilience and adaptation, energy, community engagement, mobility, materials management, economic development, and land use, the challenge covers a lot of ground. Participants earn points for completing action items and earn bronze, silver, or gold certifications. 

Danielle Beard, special projects coordinator of Policy Research Labs at the Michigan Municipal League, says the League has been a supporter of the Michigan Green Communities since the challenge started in 2009.

“The program has been an incredible asset to communities between the MGC Challenge, which serves as a roadmap for pursuing environmental sustainability, and the technical assistance cohorts that provide free, direct support to tackle larger issues,” she says. “The League administers the program on behalf of the program partners, and we are very glad to work closely with them to actively support all Michigan cities, villages, townships, and counties in their sustainability efforts.”


In Allegan County, the small community of Fennville is home to 1,745 residents – 50 percent are Hispanic and 50 percent are white.

“Located near Saugatuck and Douglas on the lakeshore, we’re a very diverse community,” says Katie Beemer, city administrator of Fennville. “Thirty percent of our population does not speak English at home, they speak Spanish.”

The small community has a big focus on agritourism and has many farms throughout, which is what really inspired Fennville to participate in the MGC Challenge. 

Downtown Fennville, a small community in Allegan County. Photo: Jim Hayden“That’s one of the things that makes sustainability even more important to us,” Beemer says. “A lot of our local economy is based on agritourism, and we want to make sure we’re protecting our orchards and our farm-to-table restaurants by investing in sustainability.”

This was the first year Fennville participated in the challenge, after hearing about it from the Michigan Municipal League.

‘The Michigan Municipal League advocates on behalf of all of our cities, townships and villages through their legislative advocacy. They provide a ton of resources for us, whether that be sample documents, surveys, and a lot of connections and best practices for municipal government,” Beemer says. “They really serve a vital purpose in both connecting municipalities to needed resources, but also connecting municipalities to each other. Their work is helping create community amongst all of the communities and something that allows us to grow and be better because we have those resources through the Michigan Municipal League.”

Fennville was awarded a silver level of certification for its annual efforts within the challenge.

“The reason why we wanted to participate is because sustainability is something that has always been important to the city of Fennville,” Beemer says. “This really gave us some clear outlines and next steps in order to improve our sustainability moving forward.”

One of the action items Fennville focused on was planning for inclusive and lasting impacts, which included things like establishing an internal sustainability team of staff to help coordinate initiatives and working with community members and volunteers. 

“The other area we worked on quite a bit was the aspect of responsibly managing materials, so we’re working on increasing our recycling and recycling opportunities for community members,” Beemer says. “We’re in the midst of a community-wide composting program, and finding ways for hazardous waste to be decreased.”

The third large category Fennville focused on was sustainable land use and economic development, says Beemer. 

“Within that, the biggest thing we’ve been incorporating is smart growth principles in our community plans,” she says. “We’ve redone a lot of our ordinances and really worked to implement green building standards and low-impact development practices into our zoning and building requirements.”

Beemer says the biggest benefit of the MGC Challenge is that it gives Fennville solid benchmarks for its plans. 

“It tells us where we should be, and what we should be doing in order to best achieve sustainability in our communities,” she says. 

Williamstown Township 

Located in Ingham County, Williamstown Township is a community of 5,500 surrounding the city of Williamston on the east, north and west sides. 

Wanda Bloomquist, supervisor of Williamstown Township, has been with the township in a few different roles for roughly 14 years. During her tenure, Williamstown Township has participated in the MGC Challenge three or four times, Bloomquist says.

As members of the Michigan Townships Association, Williamstown Township hadn’t taken the challenge in a few years. This year, however, the small community wanted to have benchmarks to measure its efforts and to see what steps can be taken to improve sustainability.

Williamstown Township earned a bronze level of certification in the Michigan Green Communities Challenge.Williamstown Township received a bronze certification. Although the township is a smaller community, being greener is still a big concern, Bloomquist says. Some of the township’s actions focused on its carbon footprint – the community reduced mowing and changed equipment to electric options. 

“We have like one truck, we don’t have a fleet so some of those action items will take some time, but we can still look at it,” she says. “The reduction of mowing has helped a lot but we’re looking at putting solar onto some of our facilities.  We don’t have much, but there are things we can do to make ourselves greener, and there’s savings in the long run as well.”

One of the challenges of being a small community means even less staff to dedicate time and commitment to these action items. 

“We do what we can,” Bloomquist says. “Longterm, I’d like to be totally carbon-neutral. Putting solar on our Township Hall would be a huge step. Looking at our mowers and replacing those, maybe going to electric and we’d really like to be putting in charging stations at parks for people to utilize. We’re looking at a lot of different things we can do to hopefully get there, and in a reasonable amount of time if we start changing some of these things.”

A recent tree planting project in Williamstown Township.
Bloomquist hopes that other small rural communities learn about the challenge and get involved in the future. Their participation has led Williamstown to think about how current residents can help plan for a brighter, greener future, too. 

“I would really encourage other rural communities to look at the challenge and start the process; this isn’t just for large cities,” she says. “One of the things we want to do is put on some workshops to encourage our residents to look at regenerative lawns so they’re not mowing as much, and different types of programs to encourage change of behavior to help with climate issues.”

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.
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