Holland ranks first for Michigan small town quality of life

Holland city center. Image: Chloe Trofatter

By Anastasi Pirrami, Chloe Trofatter and Chloe West

Echo of the Great Lakes

Editor’s note: A recent study assessed the quality of 1,322 small US cities by five measures. This story is part of a series taking a closer look at one measure as it relates to the 39 Michigan cities in the study.

HOLLAND — As rain settled over this seaside town, lights illuminated shops and restaurants along West 8th Street and artifacts of Dutch culture appeared from City Hall to the Tulip Time Festival Center .

This small town nestled off Lake Michigan ranks first in the state for quality of living in “America’s Best Small Towns,” a study published by WalletHub, a trend-tracking personal finance website. financial and others. It is one of five measures used by the study to rank the desirability of small towns. (Other measures are affordability, economic health, education and health, and security.)

Walkability is one of the metrics used to rank small towns based on their quality of life. Image: Chloe Trofatter

The study defined small towns as those with a population of 25,000 to 100,000 people. Spurred on by the increased population shift from big cities to smaller ones, WalletHub compared more than 1,300 cities on five measures of livability: quality of life, affordability, economic health, education, and health and safety.

Quality of life was assessed by metrics such as average travel time, walkability of the city, and number of bars, restaurants, and cultural centers per capita.

Holland, Kalamazoo, Flint, Muskegon and Saginaw ranked in the top five of Michigan’s 39 small towns for the quality of living measure. The lowest in the state were Holt, Eastpointe, St. Clair Shores, Lincoln Park and Garden City.

Holland has more than 25 restaurants — including eateries, cafes and bars — in its city center, according to the city’s website. Among them is Waverly Stone Gastropub, opened by Dutchman Andy Westerlund in 2018.

The fledgling restaurant survived the pandemic partly thanks to the community, Westerlund said.

“I’ve lived here all my life and it’s something Holland has always had,” he said. “Even in 2008 when the economy was really bad, everyone kept it local and supported local businesses.”

The number of restaurants per capita is one of the metrics WalletHub uses to rank small towns on quality of life. Image: Chloe Trofatter

Holland is also known worldwide for its Tulip Time Festival, an annual celebration of Dutch heritage and blooming tulips with international shows, events and activities.

Gwen Auwerda, Executive Director of the Tulip Time Festival, has been organizing the event since 2011 and is currently planning its 12th festival. Auwerda said she comes back every year for the people and her love of collaboration.

“It’s really the community people and the volunteers who come from anywhere,” Auwerda said. “A lot of people moved here because they came in Tulip Time or in the summer, and they retired here or moved here with their families.”

Such opportunities for cultural and community connection have contributed to Holland’s rank. “There are all kinds of amenities that have been built into this community that make this place a wonderful year-round experience,” said Nathan Bocks, Mayor of Holland.

Dutch Mayor Nathan Bocks. Image: Chloe Trofatter

Holland has a five-mile network of heated sidewalks, Bocks said. “If you’re a walker or runner, you can run five miles on clean, dry sidewalks on the snowiest day of the year.”

The city also has an extensive network of private and public parks in the city center. The Van Raalte farm has 8 hectares of manicured grounds for activities such as hiking and skiing.

These parks and Holland’s award-winning seasonal plantings – more than just tulips, but various annuals and perennials for spring, summer, fall and winter – are the result of nationwide cooperation. city, Bocks said.

Centennial Park in Holland’s downtown district. Image: Chloe Trofatter

“We partner with Hope College and local greenhouse and landscaping companies,” he said. “This is just one example of a partnership between all these different connected but unconnected organizations saying, ‘How can we do things together to make this community a better place?'”

City manager Keith Van Beek said Holland’s population had grown marginally over the past decade. That’s due, in part, to a broader trend of people leaving big cities for more tight-knit communities, Van Beek said.

“What we find is that we have a lot of people who [are] not so much reflected in the 2020 census figures,” he said, “but we absolutely hear stories every week of people moving to Holland from larger communities.

Brighton native Heather Lewis did just that. “It’s calmer,” she said. “It’s definitely more family oriented here.”

Lewis works part-time at Threads on 8th, a women’s boutique in downtown Holland. In her spare time, she volunteers as a hairstylist at Benjamin’s Hope, a non-profit organization that provides housing and care for adults with disabilities.

Although the Netherlands’ quality of life is high according to WalletHub measurements, there is room for improvement, said Arnold Weinfeld, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at the University of State of Michigan.

Weinfeld previously worked with the Michigan Municipal League, an organization dedicated to community development and advocacy in Michigan. The group created a guide to creating places, a strategy for building public spaces and community-centered cities.

The guide highlights eight essential elements of creating a place, such as cultural economic development, education and public transit. It also stresses the importance of welcoming diversity and multiculturalism. Despite Holland’s culturally rich roots, it has previously struggled to open up to diverse communities, Weinfeld said.

This story is part of a series called “Small Cities”.

“Holland itself has become very diverse, especially with Spanish populations,” he said. “Holland Township, now, has grown, because there has been a bit of a white flight from the city.”

Weinfeld is a testament to the city’s connected and robust downtown. “As a visitor I can see where he has a high quality of life, but I’m not sure he would come under a welcoming community as there are still racial divides to overcome.”

“And not just racial divides, but human rights divides,” he said.

In 2020, Holland expanded its anti-discrimination ordinance to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community in areas such as housing, employment, and public services. The ordinance was initially rejected by Holland City Council in 2011, but defended by Bocks when he was elected mayor.

The city’s focus on improvements includes adding parks, shops and waterfront attractions and addressing issues of affordable housing and diversity, equity and inclusion, Van Beek said.

“Our job is to create a place where people want to live, work, play and visit,” he said. “We just want to be a welcoming place for everyone and, as our mayor says, that everyone can call home if they want to and want to be here.”

The second column ranks the 39 best small towns in Michigan — those between 25,000 and 100,000 people — based on five factors weighted by a national study. The following columns display their rank only on the measure of this column. Source: WalletHub