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Grand Rapids receives sustainability award from the US Chamber of Commerce?

May 14, 2010

Yesterday, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell was in Houston, Texas to receive the 2010 Siemens Sustainable Community Award for most sustainable city in the country for midsized cities.

The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce President Jeanne Englehart and Amway Corporation Sustainability Program Manager Eric Van Dellen, according to the Grand Rapids Press, joined Heartwell in receiving the award.

The brief Press article doesn’t provide any context or explanation for why Grand Rapids was chosen and the Press reporter doesn’t ask any questions about the significance of the award and what it means in terms of what the city has actually done to promote sustainability. However, there are several questions that could be asked and numerous observations to be made about what such an award actually means.

First, we should consider the source of the award. The US Chamber of Commerce and the Siemens Corporation are bestowing this sustainability award. Siemens is a global corporation that operates in the areas of “Information and Communications, Automation and Control, Power, Transportation, Medical, and Lighting.” According to Source Watch, the company has engaged in questionable labor practices in China, practices that even break Chinese labor laws.

The US Chamber of Commerce is also rife with contradictions, when comparing their politics to that of sustainable policies. First, the Chamber is dominated by oil, pharmaceutical, automobile and other major polluting industries. Second, the Chamber has aggressively opposed climate change legislation in the US, even though the proposed legislation has been very weak.

Third, the Chamber has opposed virtually all pro-worker initiatives in recent decades, most recently the Employee Free Choice Act. Lastly, it is worth noting that the US Chamber of Commerce has spent more money lobbying Congress than any other entity since 1998, spending over $638 million to influence policy. Receiving a sustainability award from these corporate entities is like receiving a peace award from the Pentagon.

A second question that should be asked by any competent journalist is what criterion did the Chamber/Siemens award committee use to determine which cities won? According to the 2010 Siemens Sustainable Community Awards website, “A sustainable community has committed to setting and achieving complementary economic, environmental, and social goals that will help build long-term competitiveness and success.” This statement is rather vague and could be interpreted in any number of ways.

The Chamber/Siemens award site does have a summary document on what they identify as sustainability in Grand Rapids. “The City of Grand Rapids’ Sustainability Plan is a commitment to sustainable development, such as the construction of LEED-certified buildings, innovative uses of energy, renewable energy development, promotion of public transportation, waste elimination, resource conservation, job creation, increased education attainment, and pedestrian and bicycle access.”

Not surprising the document includes as the first item is the City’s construction of LEED-certified buildings. While there is something positive to be said about more energy efficient buildings it does not take into account where the resources for the buildings come from, the pollution generated during construction and most importantly what happens inside those buildings. If what happens inside is inherently unsustainable, then any positive gains made from energy conservation are negated by what the entity which occupies the building does.

It is true that the City has reduced its energy consumption and has increased the amount renewable energy production, but this statistic refers to the city owned buildings themselves and not the city as a whole, which is an important distinction. It would be interesting to see what the data is for energy use for the businesses, industries and residents of the city as a whole were.

The document also states that the award recognizes that the city promotes public transportation, pedestrian and bicycle access. The public transportation system is still grossly inadequate for a city the size of Grand Rapids, where the majority of people who live and work in the area still drive. Traffic congestion is a major problem as is the amount of land that is devoted to parking. There certainly has been an increase in people using bicycles in recent years, but for anyone who commutes by bike you know how dangerous it is to ride in Grand Rapids, a city with virtually no bike lanes.

Such an award is also questionable considering that the city is unable to balance its own budget, cutting basic services and home to a growing underclass living in poverty.

Much more could be said about the actually sustainable practices within the City of Grand Rapids, but the Grand Rapids Press nor anyone else should not just accept on face value such an award, in part because it is given out by entities which do not practice sustainability themselves and because the city if far from being truly sustainable.

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