Beyond bricks and mortar


Rockford Construction is based on Grand Rapids’ west side, an area the firm is helping to revitalize. Photo via

“Build the society you’ve always dreamed of. The only limits are those of your ambition. Can you create a city that will stand the test of time?”

This is the enticement you’ll find in advertisements for SimCity, a popular video game series launched 25 years ago, just two years after Rockford Construction was founded.

While traditional urban planning has focused on buildings, streets and infrastructure, SimCity measures a player’s success by the happiness of its citizens and the stability of its budget.

I find the concept intriguing, particularly as it relates to specific neighborhoods within the city. Having grown up on Grand Rapids’ west side, and now spending every day working, eating and shopping here, I’ve begun to imagine how Grand Rapids could strategically invest in some of the great neighborhoods that surround us to improve the quality of life of our residents and make our city a more vibrant, economically sustainable place to live.

The model

A relatively new approach to neighborhoods is being implemented across the country. Seeking to expand the traditional goals of neighborhood development and revitalization, this approach is based on the premise that good places to live include a mix of uses, varied housing types, environmentally sensitive and sustainable design, and safe and convenient access to jobs, education, services, recreation, transit and culture. While each neighborhood is unique and brings a character of its own, this new approach uses a variety of metrics to measure success.

  • A diverse population in terms of age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomics
  • A variety of housing options for young professionals, young families, empty nesters and seniors
  • Job creation and growth of local business
  • Inclusive leadership engagement at the local level
  • Government and nonprofit involvement to support social service needs
  • Access to educational opportunities and health care
  • Sustainability
  • Walkability
  • Green space or parks

Urban examples

Canada is starting to measure the success of cities and neighborhoods based on a series of metrics that include education, skills, commerce, social well-being and environmental quality. The Kresge Foundation is using a similar approach to their investments in the city of Detroit and Carnegie Mellon University has studied neighborhood strength and success as a way to measure the results of investments in the city of Pittsburgh.

Often, efforts are centered around areas where anchors are planned or already in place. For example, Detroit is focusing on Midtown to maximize on the presence of the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University. Pittsburgh identified a core group of businesses to build around. Tony Hsheih’s group in Las Vegas relocated to the neighborhood that they had targeted for future growth efforts.

It takes a village

As Grand Rapids continues to look at bricks and mortar, roads and infrastructure to support ongoing development, we should also consider how our investments and actions can support greater diversity, educational attainment and job creation.

Some of the best examples of neighborhood revitalization combine the efforts of for profit and nonprofit organizations to achieve long-term economic stability and social well-being. At the core of these efforts are active and engaged residents. The alignment of jobs, opportunity, education, health services and culture can work together to support a neighborhood, and city, that will thrive over time.

Our firm has been a proud participant in the revitalization of Grand Rapids, through both our construction and development projects. Our city has weathered the economic storm of the past five years and is poised for continued growth. I hope our current efforts on the west side and future work across our city can foster a Grand Rapids that succeeds both economically and socially. The future of our city depends on it. 

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