GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand River has historically divided the city of Grand Rapids in multiple ways, but as redevelopments have ramped up in recent years, leaders of a restoration plan are stressing the importance of making the river accessible to all residents.
It could still be years before significant construction begins to restore the river rapids in what will be a years-long, signature project for the city. The extensive redevelopment will include land acquisitions, facilitating programming, removing dams, informing the public about water safety, and giving space to micro local businesses along the riverbank. As of late last year, the nonprofit developer, Grand Rapids Whitewater, predicted construction would start in July 2021.
Ensuring equity is included with future development was recently reinforced with new grant funding and organizational changes.
The Grand Rapids Community Foundation recently awarded the city an $800,000 grant to continue river development equity work through 2024.
Eugene Sueing, program director at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, said the foundation is investing in projects and programs with partners that share its commitment to becoming actively anti-racist.
“The transformational river restoration will have significant environmental, social and economic impacts on our community, so it is critical equity is intentionally embedded,” Sueing said.
Engaging with the river
The River for All Racial & Economic Equity grant will allow the city to hire an analyst to embed racial and economic equity in the project, work with local organizations that focus on diverse leadership and engagement with nature, create dedicated business incubator spaces along the river for women and businesses of color, and install a water quality notification system.
“There is a lot of distrust with people wanting to get into the river,” said Ciarra Adkins, equity analyst in the city’s Office of Equity and Engagement. “The (water quality notification system) is our attempt to educate the public, specifically a public that’s not often engaged in the river.”
The barriers to green spaces like the Grand River have always existed for people of color, Adkins said. She added that COVID-19 brought attention to the issue for more members of the community, while the pandemic has highlighted the importance and health benefits of being outside.
“Recreation is a privilege as far as having the time, having the means to pay for different activities, having the transportation as well as feeling welcome there,” Adkins said. “Typically people of color have not been welcome in those areas, and clashes with people of color and non-people of color have taken place in environmental spaces.”
Adkins said intentionally including equity with the Grand River Restoration project — which was first proposed in 2008 — is meant to counter the ongoing misconception that it will only serve certain demographics. While engagement efforts were slowed by the pandemic, strategic programming will take place next year.
“We hope to work with local organizations of color to work with residents of color,” Adkins said. “Programming along the river banks and work to get people in the river will include different activities that will be targeted to children, families, adults, seniors and people with disabilities.”
Equity work for the project has been guided by a statement that Adkins drafted, which reads: “To create a river for all that honors both the history and the future of our river by embedding racial and economic principles in all that we do both in the water and along the river banks. We understand that all river-related decisions today will have an immense generational impact on the residents of our city.
Diversity and inclusion has been an underlying principle throughout the Grand River Restoration process, said Kathy Blaha, a Florida-based project consultant to Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Blaha was hired last year to help study potential organizational changes to help the project advance.
A newly created nonprofit plans to implement the vision and work on partnerships for the public investment project and spin offs that will occur in the city and the county, Blaha said. A board of directors will be formed in 2021 to help move forward with an action plan.
“It’s a matter of helping determine who does what,” Blaha said. “It’s a very large vision with large action steps. It’s best to divvy up the tasks.”
The reimagining of the Grand River is too large of a project for just the city or a department to carry out, Blaha said. Planners are looking at also forming a separate recreational authority for the river project that could form regional partnerships with public agencies.
“These authorities are very useful and an effective way to align government authorities,” Blaha said. “This will really create a framework, and we’re in the process of building the team right now.”
Adkins said the renewed equity commitments are to help “all of our residents feel welcome. We’re using this to bring all parts of the city together. The river has divided us for so long, hopefully it will be what brings us together.”
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