Grand Rapids has long been a model of sustainability nationwide. Government, business and nonprofit partners have come together to set – and exceed – aggressive sustainability goals, earning the community top sustainability honors for more than a decade. It’s no wonder residents and visitors, alike, find meaningful ways to get engaged and advance their own commitment to a healthy environment. We described some of those opportunities a couple years back, but see what’s new in this month’s edition of A Grand Investment.

Grand Rapids: a national model of sustainability

Grand Rapids has long been a model of sustainability, and the City government plays a leading role in driving the region forward. With six of its buildings already EPA Energy-Star-certified, Grand Rapids is one of 12 U.S. cities currently participating in the Zero Cities Project, aimed at developing a policy roadmap toward a zero net carbon building sector by 2050. Using its sustainability plan as a guide, the City aims to:

  • Reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 2009 levels by 2021,
  • Double water reuse and recovery by June 30, 2021, and
  • Increase energy use from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biogas and geothermal from 30% to 100% by June 30, 2025.

In 2006, the U.S. Green Building Council estimated that metro Grand Rapids had more square footage per capita under LEED certification than any other city in the United States. LEED accomplishments include the world’s first LEED certified transit system, school, church, residence, YMCA, healthcare project and municipal building. Grand Rapids also boasts Michigan’s first LEED Platinum library, the country’s first LEED Silver production brewery and the world’s first LEED Gold art museum.

In 2010, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named Grand Rapids the most sustainable mid-size city in the country, and in 2012, then-Mayor George Heartwell won the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Award for large cities.

Having adopted the Green Grand Rapids amendment to the City’s master plan in 2012, and with it, a plan to establish a goal of 40% tree canopy throughout the community, the City partnered with Friends of Grand Rapids Parks to launch the Urban Forest Project. The project calls on residents to become Neighborhood Foresters, equipping them to volunteer with classes in tree planting, pruning, identification and forestry advocacy.

Most recently, the City embedded sustainability as a core value in its 2020-2023 strategic plan

Volunteers from WMEAC helping out at the Mayor's River Clean Up event.

Volunteers from WMEAC helping out at the Mayor's River Clean Up event.

Photo by West Michigan Environmental Action Council

Volunteer all year round

Given these aggressive environmental initiatives and national accolades, it’s no surprise the community is full of opportunities to get involved year-round.

Whether you’re here for a conference, a family visit or you call Grand Rapids home, you’ll find fun and meaningful volunteer opportunities 12 months a year. Here are just a few examples.


Blandford Nature Center has lots of volunteer opportunities year-round – even in January! Check out how you can help with their Eco-Stewardship Work Days focused on habitat restoration, trail maintenance, stream clean-up and removal of invasive species. Volunteers receive instruction not only on removal but also on identification of several native Michigan plant species and general ecology. Volunteers learn to identify and manage plants that may be growing in their communities and how those plants and their volunteer efforts impact their surrounding environment.

Other organizations like the Kent Conservation District also need volunteers to help control invasive species. They point out that winter is a great time to find vines like Oriental Bittersweet that are threatening trees and wildlife habitat.


On February 27, 2020, add your voice as the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) and other community members interested in advocating for themselves, for others, and for the environment plan the 2020 Women, Community and Environment Series, slated for November.

This multi-day symposium will deliver inspiring social and learning opportunities throughout Grand Rapids, raises awareness of actionable environmental issues in the community, brings together a wide-ranging network of women and provides connections and resources for civic engagement.

February is also the time to consider becoming a John Ball Zoo education volunteer. Join other volunteer ambassadors who help the Zoo serve its conservation and education mission by interacting with guests, informing them of the wonders of wildlife, and teaching about the animals in the John Ball Zoo collection. Applications are due in February, with training held in March.


Volunteers help control invasive species, increase site biodiversity and maintain hiking trails during Stewardship Work Days at the Calvin College Ecosystem Preserve. The work days run March through May.

For more volunteer opportunities, check out the volunteer page on their website.


Join the Mayor of Grand Rapids, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the City of Grand Rapids’ Forestry Department and hundreds of volunteers for the Mayor’s Greening Initiative annual Arbor Week Tree Planting and Community Celebration.

Since 2016, the partners and more than 1,200 volunteers have planted over 1000 trees and given away 400 saplings to elementary school children to ignite their passion for nature.

April is also the time for teens to consider joining one of the teen volunteer programs at John Ball Zoo. Teens who share a passion for wildlife and environmental conservation can choose the Counselor in Training or Zoo Teens program. Both programs run throughout the summer, with applications due in April.


The Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) unites and empowers local municipalities and community stakeholders to protect and revitalize the Lower Grand River and its watersheds.

LGROW leads and partners on several important regional programs that rely on volunteer support to get the job done. Volunteers get engaged year-round. But activities really kick into gear from May through the fall months in a variety programs including planting bioswales and rain gardens with native plants, invasive species management (pulling garlic mustard, cutting buckthorn, etc.) and river and stream trash cleanups.

To volunteer, sign up on the LGROW website.  And be sure to register for their 17th Annual Grand River Spring Forum, scheduled for May 8, 2020.  This year’s forum focuses on watershed resiliency in the face of threats like increasing population densities and weather-related disasters for farmers.

Kids and adults of all ages planting trees with Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW).

Kids and adults of all ages planting trees with Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW).

Photo by Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW)


The start of summer is also the start of peak park season in West Michigan. Kent County Parks and Trails manages over 7,000 acres of public land in 42 parks and maintains more than 80 miles of trails within and outside its parks. As you can imagine, it takes a team of staff AND volunteers to keep the parks in pristine condition.

Whether you’re on your own or you’re a representative of an organization who would like to plan a project for a group, Kent County Parks and Trails has a role for you! The offer single projects for individuals or groups, occasional work for friends of a park, season-long commitments for park and trail stewards, school group projects, and internships.

To learn more, check out the Volunteer Services page on their website.


Thanks, in part, to its green roof, WMEAC was the first zero-stormwater discharge site in Grand Rapids. Volunteers help weed the green roof garden throughout the summer to keep it working the way it should.

Or, join WMEAC’s Teach for the Watershed crew as they build the next generation of Great Lakes advocates through watershed education. During the summer, WMEAC welcomes volunteers to help with activities at community events. 

Learn more on the WMEAC volunteer page, or email them at to let them know you want to share your enthusiasm for the environment and lend a hand.


The month of August is always blooming with opportunities to get involved with Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. Volunteers might help build a playground, beautify a park, plant or prune trees or supplement the Urban Forest Tree Map as they wander through a local park or tree-lined street.  

Check out the FGRP website or Facebook page to find out what’s happening now.


Get a whole new perspective and make a big impact on the city’s namesake – the Grand River – by volunteering at the Mayors’ Grand River Cleanup, hosted by WMEAC.  Join volunteers and mayors from Grand Rapids, Grandville, Wyoming and Walker to pick up trash at sites along 30 miles of the Grand River, as well as tributaries and storm drains in area neighborhoods that empty into the river.

Later in the month, Experience ArtPrize while helping to make Grand Rapids’ biggest event more sustainable. Volunteer to educate eventgoers about composting, recycling and waste reduction at ArtPrize S.O.R.T. (separate organic, recycling, trash) stations.

Grand Rapids students participating in the Teach for the Watershed program at WMEAC.

Grand Rapids students participating in the Teach for the Watershed program at WMEAC.

Photo by West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC)


Fall is a beautiful time to explore the rivers and streams in West Michigan, and what better way to do it than while volunteering with a local conservation club.  Schrems West Michigan Trout Unlimited organizes regular conservation activities aimed at protecting and restoring West Michigan’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. The rely on volunteers to help get the job done.

You can learn what they’re up and stay up-to-date on calls for volunteers by following their conservation blog.

Or join the Friends of Fred Meijer White Pine Trail, and volunteer to provide light trail maintenance through their Adopt a Trail program.


Whether its staffing booths at festivals, clearing trash from area rivers and streams or helping with invasive species management, LGROW keeps volunteers busy late into the fall, as well.  Check out their Facebook page for current opportunities. 

Beyond their teen and education programs, John Ball Zoo needs volunteers year-round, too.  Check out their animal care and horticultural volunteer opportunities if you share the Zoo’s conservation mission and love of animals.


Winter in West Michigan can be the most beautiful time of year, especially on a crisp, clear day after a December snowfall.  Friends of Grand Rapids Parks counts on volunteers to capture that beauty in December – and year-round – by photographing parks and tree canopy throughout our community.  Submit your best shots to and they might appear on the organization’s website or in promotional materials.

Clearly, there’s no shortage of ways to get involved. Check out one of these opportunities and join us in building a more sustainable community.

A Grand Investment is an ongoing series exploring the business landscape of Grand Rapids. Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, Grand Rapids is fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investment. This series highlights leading sectors of the local economy and underscores the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings.