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Resources Blue Arrows

Building Green and Sustainable
Communities in West Michigan

Norman Christopher, Director of Sustainability,
Grand Valley State University

There is a lot of buzz in our state about “green” concepts and “sustainability.” 
What do they mean?  Are the terms interchangeable? 

“Green” = Short-Term Efficiencies (cost/benefit)
Sustainability = Long-Term Effectiveness (value creation)

The answer is no, they are not interchangeable.  The term “green” connotes short-term efficiencies, such as switching from regular to LED light bulbs, whereas sustainability means long-term effectiveness. Solar Energy is sustainable. Wind power is sustainable. These forms of energy are naturally replenishing, not depleted. 

Norman Christopher, director of sustainability for Grand Valley State University, illuminated the concept of sustainability with the following quotes: 

“[Sustainability is] meeting the needs of today without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” ( U.N. Brundtland Report 1987)

We do not inherit the earth from our fathers, we borrow it from our children.
– Ancient Indian Proverb

How does the concept of sustainability translate into real life, into municipal life?  Sustainable communities embrace the principles of sustainable development by being:

  •   Active, inclusive, and safe

  •   Well run

  •   Environmentally sensitive

  •   Well designed and built

  •   Well connected

  •   Thriving

  •   Well served

  •   Fair for everyone

You can’t have sustainability without attention to the environment, economics, and social justice.  This is the triple bottom-line.  Christopher gave examples of how the city of Grand Rapids works sustainable goals into the overall management of its city.  For instance, the city has a goal to reduce water consumption by 15 percent by 2015, to purchase 20 percent renewable energy by 2008, and to reduce City CO2 emission by 7 percent by 2012.  Further, a measurable objective toward the city’s goal of economic prosperity is to build a new economy with a highly skilled workforce by 2015, and to establish a sustainable purchasing system by 2008.  Lastly, to build toward a goal of social justice, the city’s objective is to reduce illiteracy by 50 percent by 2014, have all third grade students in Grand Rapids Public Schools reading at grade level by 2010, and to end homelessness by 2014.

Christopher calls the combination of environmentalism, economics, and social justice the triple bottom line.  It is the core, or foundation of a sustainable community.  You can’t have a sustainable community without concentrating on all three areas. 


If you have any questions, please contact: 
Colleen Layton, or Arnold Weinfeld, .




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