The Making of a Thrive Outside Community: Grand Rapids

The western Michigan city was already forging a path toward more outdoor engagement, but an infusion of funding and coordination from the Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside program will give it a boost.

By Kristen Pope December 24, 2019

Thrive Outside strives not just to encourage individuals to enjoy the outdoors, but to create whole communities of avid outdoorists. In order to meet this aim, backbone partners are working with their communities to create partnership networks to collaborate and bring even more people outside. Each of the four pilot Thrive Outside Communities—Atlanta, San Diego, Oklahoma City, and Grand Rapids, Michigan—is looking at where they have parks and programs and where they are lacking. They’re assessing their communities to learn about available resources and what each partner can bring to the table.

Before Grand Rapids was selected as a Thrive Outside community, the city was already striving to provide more close-to-home outdoor opportunities for its residents. The city has an initiative to provide parks within a 10-minute walk for every resident, and this summer they broke ground on additional parks to meet this goal. Thrive Outside will help an already outdoor-focused community provide even more opportunities for residents, according to John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

What is Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside? It’s a nationwide effort to connect and coordinate disparate community organizations working—often in parallel—to connect children with quality outdoor experiences. The lack of coordination between these well-meaning organizations lead to gaps and missed opportunities. The Thrive Outside approach helps organizations connect with each other to create repeat and reinforcing experiences, while also leaving room for the unique offerings and cultural differences in each community. Read more.

“This Outdoor Foundation opportunity is just like the fuel injection that we needed to help us take our efforts to the next level,” Helmholdt says.

The city is currently working to bring key stakeholders together to map their assets, explore possibilities, and assess opportunities. Partners include Grand Rapids Public Schools, Grand Rapids Public Museum, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, Our Community’s Children, Blandford Nature Center, West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Plaster Creek Stewards, and John Ball Zoo, among others. The full group of stakeholders meets quarterly, with subgroups meeting more frequently.

Each of the four Thrive Outside pilot communities is currently gathering stakeholders and partners together to learn what each one can offer. “Because [the communities] are different it was really important that we not create a one-size-fits-all approach and we provide room for what is unique in each community,” says Outdoor Foundation executive director Lise Aangeenbrug. The Outdoor Foundation is also hosting webinars where the communities can get to know each other and learn from one another while each can also tailor programs to meet their community’s specific needs.

Many of the Grand Rapids partners have already been working together through a collaboration called Grand Rapids Environmental Education Network (GREEN). Thrive Outside will help the existing group expand and collaborate to achieve even more.

“I think this Thrive Outside opportunity really only begins to highlight the work that’s taking place already and take it to a whole new level,” says David Marquardt, director of the City of Grand Rapids Department of Parks and Recreation.