Heartwell, '71, Talks Climate-Change Readiness in Grand Rapids

April 22, 2014

George Heartwell

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, '71, recently was named to President Obama's Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. We sat down with him to talk about his efforts in Michigan's second-largest city.

Why do you think the work of this task force is important?

Every mayor recognizes that changes in global climate patterns are already impacting our cities, presenting challenges never before known. Mayors and local councils must make investment decisions today anticipating conditions 20 to 50 years from now.

What of your Grand Rapids experience will you share with the task force?

Grand Rapids was an early adapter of Resiliency Planning, writing climate-change impacts into our Sustainability Plan and Emergency Preparedness Plan. The Vulnerabilities Assessment and Climate Change Report prepared for the City by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council is a model for the nation and was shared with the task force members.

How is Grand Rapids better prepared to deal with climate change now than when you took office?

By getting out "ahead of the curve" on climate change, Grand Rapids has invested in renewable resource energy (23% of all our power demand), transit (Michigan's first bus rapid transit system and double-digit ridership growth each year but one from 2001-2012), alternative fuels in municipal vehicles, flood mitigation investments, response plan for addressing needs of vulnerable people during heat waves, and a Sustainability Plan that drives triple bottom line work in every department in City Hall.

Why is the environment so important to you, personally?

Simply, Susan and I have six grandchildren. If I can do anything to ensure that the world they grow up in is as delightful as the one I have known, it is my obligation (and joy) to do so.

Did anything during your time at Albion contribute to your environmental awareness?

I'd like to say that being thrown in the Kalamazoo River by fraternity brothers when I became engaged to be married gave me a deep appreciation for the riverine ecosystem. But it was December and I bounced, then broke through the ice skim on the edge! It's a wonder I ever went near a river again.

No, I'm sure it was walking hand-in-hand with Susan Whitesell through the fall beauty of Victory Park that confirmed my love of nature.