KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A $300,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will help Kalamazoo County double down on its commitment to combating climate change through sustainable practices.
With the funds, the county has appointed Kalamazoo College alum Taylor Van Winkle to be its first-ever sustainability coordinator, giving her time and resources to grow current projects and develop new ones.
“Hiring our first sustainability coordinator is a crucial step forward in promoting a sustainable future for Kalamazoo County,” Planning and Development Director Rachael Grover said in a statement. “Taylor’s expertise and leadership will be instrumental in developing a county-wide climate action plan that aligns with our values of environmental stewardship and climate justice.”
Van Winkle officially started in her role in late June and is working to get to know the organizations and individuals she will be working with over the next three years.
The grant was secured by Kalamazoo County and the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition. Kalamazoo County and its partners have laid the framework. Now, it’s up to Van Winkle to implement it.
“(The primary job) is to facilitate the creation of a collaborative climate action plan across several issues: the built environment, natural environment, food systems, agriculture, infrastructure. Those are the key parts of that planning process. But it’s important to note that (the plan) will integrate environmental justice throughout the creation of this plan,” Van Winkle told News 8. “Environmental justice isn’t its own issue. It is a part of all of those.”
The job will require a lot of teamwork, working alongside local groups and neighborhood associations. Van Winkle is counting on their cooperation to help implement projects, as well as to identify problems that could be specific to Kalamazoo County or even certain communities. That means taking a wide focus, rather than focusing solely on bigger cities like Kalamazoo and Portage.
“This will be a comprehensive county-wide climate action plan. It will take into account not only the urban centers but also the rural community,” Van Winkle said. “A county plan helps us integrate services and programs and design solutions on a larger scale. … County municipal services in general offer a unique position because it crosses jurisdictions. (Larger communities) might have enough staffing and funding to host a permanent position to create and implement a climate action plan. But on the county level, (this plan) could help municipalities that don’t have the funding or the resources.”
Van Winkle is a Kansas native, but she said she fell in love with Michigan when she moved to the area for her undergraduate work at Kalamazoo College.
“I really fell in love with Michigan. I have never wanted to live anywhere else since I have moved here. It has my heart and soul. I absolutely love Kalamazoo and I’m really, really happy to be back,” she said.
After graduating from K-College with honors, Van Winkle moved onto Michigan State University to earn a master’s degree in urban and regional planning with a focus on climate resiliency. She has spent the last several years working with different organizations on climate-related projects. She moved to Kalamazoo County after serving as an associate city planner for the city of East Lansing.
After getting settled, Van Winkle said her first goal is to connect with the community and figure out where the biggest needs can be met. She expects a survey to come out later this fall to gather community input.
“That will help us identify the major needs in the county right now as well as help prioritize our work,” she said. “(We want) as much input as possible from residents, businesses, commercial entities, farmers, everybody — the more, the merrier.”