Grand Rapids is the second-largest city in Michigan, claiming a modest-sized metropolitan area with about 1 million people in total. It is perhaps best known as the hometown of former President Gerald Ford and is the location of his presidential museum and library.

This small metropolis is impressive when it comes to the environment as well. It has more LEED-certified buildings per capita* than much larger cities such as Detroit and Chicago, and has public art and large greenspaces throughout the city and its environs. It is a good green alternative for urban vacationers seeking a Midwestern destination. 

Go green

Like most midsized cities, Grand Rapids and its environs are best explored by car. Green-minded visitors can use the bus system, although it is geared toward commuters from residential neighborhoods in the city and suburbs. The bus system, known as The Rapid, offers convenient multi-ride passes, with the four-day, $11.50 pass being the best option for visitors. A taxi service called Green Chauffeur runs a fleet of gas-electric hybrids for those who want to keep their travels green but can't rely on the bus.

Grand Rapids is a bike-friendly city during the warmer months, with bike trails throughout the greater Grand Rapids area and surrounding Kent County. For visitors intent on having a low-carbon vacation, pedaling probably is the best option. The Rapid’s buses are equipped with bike racks, so a well-planned bike-plus-bus strategy can give you the same reach as if you had a car (if not the same level of speed and convenience).

Eat green

The San Chez tapas bistro, one of the more popular eateries in the city, has always had an eye on community involvement and responsible restaurant practices. The restaurant has an ambitious recycling and composting program and claims that 90 percent of its waste does not end up in landfills. San Chez is also part of the EPA's Green Power Partnership and has received certification from the Green Restaurant Program. The menu has a wide range of tapas and also includes offerings for vegans and people with food allergies.

The Green Well is another progressive eating spot. It sources most of its ingredients from local farmers and serves locally made beers and wines. The Green Well’s building is LEED-certified, with features ranging from a rainwater collection system to organic, low- and no-VOC construction materials and energy-efficient roofing and windows.

Brick Road Pizza Co. is another locally centered restaurant that serves gourmet pizza, made with local ingredients whenever possible.

The Fulton Street Farmers Market, which runs from May through Christmastime, is one of the older farmers markets in the country. It has run in one form or another for more than 80 years. The focus is on organic, locally grown produce, and unlike many farmers markets, runs several days each week.

Sleep green

CityFlats Hotel in Holland, a lakeside town about 30 minutes from central Grand Rapids, was the first hotel in the Midwest to be LEED Gold-certified. Local or sustainable products such as bamboo were used during construction and decoration, lowering the “carbon cost” of the building process. Energy-efficient appliances and other green hotel staples like low-flow faucets and recycling make this one of the best choices in the area. A second CityFlats Hotel is set to open soon in downtown Grand Rapids. It will be housed in a renovated building and plans to achieve LEED certification.

Other Grand Rapids properties like the Days Inn and JW Marriott are solid green-hotel choices with eco-friendly features that have been implemented in many of the chains' other locations.

See green

The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is one of Grand Rapids’ best green attractions and one of its most notable attractions overall. This venue offers an indoor/outdoor experience that could take up an entire day on your itinerary, with extensive outdoor trails through the gardens and a large outdoor sculpture park. An indoor gallery and tropical conservatory also make this an ideal attraction for cold-weather visitors. Grand Rapids has at least 20 additional sculptures, not only downtown, but also throughout the metropolitan area.

Frederik Meijer (philanthropist and owner of the Midwest's first major retail chain — a predecessor of today's “big box” stores) also lends his name to the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail. This lengthy trail begins in Grand Rapids and stretches for more than 90 miles, all the way to Cadillac, Mich. A part-paved, part-gravel trail, it is actually a long, thin state park.

The Grand Rapids Riverwalk includes a boardwalk-style pedestrian area with shops and eateries. Nearby Riverside Park has picnic areas and a sports field, just like you would expect from any centrally located greenspace. It also has plenty of riverside hiking trails and other walkways that crisscross its 250 acres. Both the Riverwalk and trails of Riverside Park are part of a network that connects city paths to regional trails. Other impressive natural areas in the city include Burton Woods, which shows how reforestation efforts helped the land return to a more natural state after the region's agricultural heyday.

Another walkable area is in Lowell, a historic town near Grand Rapids. It has shops and neighborhoods featuring Victorian architecture as well as a host of playgrounds and parks. Heritage Hill Historic District is another option for foot-powered, history-centered sightseeing, located conveniently just outside downtown Grand Rapids. This neighborhood has more than 1,000 houses, and guided tours are offered occasionally during the warmer months.

The Blandford Nature Center is an education-centered venue with programs that are open to the public each weekend. The nature center also has a farm, an interpretive center and a collection of historic “heritage buildings” from past eras. It also has four miles of public trails inside the center.

The Grand Rapids Public Museum, former owner of Blandford, has exhibits on Grand Rapids’ history and native wildlife. Gerald Ford's Presidential Library and Museum is another popular, though not overtly green, exhibit space in Grand Rapids. As far as the environment is concerned, the showcase is the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It was the first museum in the world to achieve LEED Gold certification, an impressive accomplishment considering the demands of climate control to preserve works of art and the need for all-encompassing lighting. The museum backs up to Grand Rapids’ central plaza, which has public art installations and an area designed by architect Maya Lin.

Grand Rapids is an impressive city. Despite its modest size, it has plenty to offer in terms of attractions, both mainstream and green.

*Editor's note: The original article did not include the words per capita, which changes the meaning. Also, a sharp reader pointed us to some helpful information about Chicago, which ranks first in LEED-certified buildings as of February 2011.

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Thumbnail photo: MeijerGardens/Flickr