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Better by Design

Grand Rapids embraces new planning principles

July 11, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

GRAND RAPIDS -- Grand Rapids, already recognized as a leader in Michigan and the Midwest in planning to curb sprawl, is poised to take another important step toward protecting its quality of life and natural assets. The committee that is rewriting Grand Rapids’ outdated master plan is now considering new standards for development that are based on protecting natural resources.

The new standards, called the Hannover Principles, were developed in 1992 under the guidance of William McDonough, former dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture. Mr. McDonough has earned international renown for his work with Herman Miller, Steelcase, and Ford Motor Company to design more ecologically sustainable manufacturing centers.

Among the planning ideas that the Hannover Principles embrace is the recognition that people have the right to exist in a healthy, supportive, naturally diverse, and sustainable condition. Another principle is understanding that decisions about how things look and where they are built have consequences on human well-being, natural systems, and their ability and right to coexist.

A third principle stresses the need to design buildings and communities that have long-term value. Future generations should not be burdened with maintenance, danger, damage, and wastes because we are carelessly designing the places we live.

“The master plan should not be a prescription but rather a set of guidelines that lays out the values our future decisions should support, ” said Dr. Rick Sullivan, vice chairman of the Grand Rapids Master Plan Committee.

Grand Rapids Sets Standard in Land Use
Indeed, among Michigan’s big cities, few are tackling the hard work of improving the quality of life with as much scope and vision as Grand Rapids. And there’s good reason. USA Today recently reported that Grand Rapids is the sixth most sprawling metropolitan region in the nation.

Since January the city has held more than 100 public meetings to solicit comments, ideas, and opinions from local residents about planning, sprawl, and how the uses of land need to improve. The meetings introduced nearly 3,000 people to the planning process. Grand Rapids discovered that protecting the region’s natural resources really mattered to most residents.

This is nothing new. Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that Michigan residents overwhelmingly support natural resource conservation. But Grand Rapids residents take it a step further. “Humans are not the only active part of our city’s biosphere,” said one participant at a community brainstorming session held this spring.

Of course, there are dissenters. “From a planning stand point, some of these visions are unrealistic,” one citizen told the master plan committee.

But in Grand Rapids, a majority of residents now recognize that their daily lives are interconnected with nature. Their statements to the master plan committee indicated that they reject as false the old assumption that development of the human community degrades the environment. Instead, many insisted that their community grow in a way that simultaneously improves the environment and strengthens the local economy.

Park Revival in Grand Rapids
What’s really new is that civic officials in Grand Rapids finally take such ideas seriously. Resident after resident called for expanding parks, preserving open space, and reorienting the city around the forgotten but vital Grand River, which flows through the center of town. The city’s new planning philosophy is expressed in a quote borrowed from Daniel Burnham, an American architect and city planner: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” he said. “Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work.”

The Grand Rapids master plan, which guides the location of new construction, has not changed since the early 1960’s. Mr. Sullivan likens the master plan to a city scale version of the U.S. Constitution, a document that communicates the fundamental groundwork of governance and embodies the flexibility necessary to accommodate a number of different activities.

Incorporating the Hannover Principles into the master plan would put Grand Rapids in a unique position to strengthen the links between the city’s environment and economy. The fact that the master plan committee is even discussing such concepts strengthens Grand Rapids’ reputation as an innovator. When it comes to planning, the city is in a class all its own in Michigan.

Reining in Sprawl
In 1999, for instance, Grand Rapids and its suburban townships agreed to a line on a map to confine new development to areas already served by water and sewer services and to discourage runaway development in areas that do not. Grand Rapids pursued the state’s first urban development boundary because enough leaders and citizens recognized that a growth-at- any-cost economic program yields a long and avoidable list of expensive problems — pollution, congestion, degraded urban neighborhoods, and deteriorated civic services.

As a community, Grand Rapids has embraced what is arguably the most important of the Hannover Principles — the idea that no human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Grand Rapids’ leaders and citizens are learning how to treat nature as a model and mentor, not as an inconvenience they should evade or control.

Andrew Guy is a journalist and grassroots organizer at the Michigan Land Use Institute, based in our new office in Grand Rapids . He can be reached at
andy@mlui.org, or 616-308-6250. A version of this article was published in the July 4, 2001 edition of The Paper in Grand Rapids.

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