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While indicators show the economic downturn in the United States is slowly reversing, cash-strapped cities across the country continue to look for smart ways to launch and sustain green building initiatives. They know this downtime is a perfect opportunity to set the stage for a transformational rebound because such programs provide a competitive edge for market-savvy developers in tune with consumer priorities. They also are an essential sustainability and economic growth strategy for cities looking to position themselves for long-term vitality.

Few entities hold more power to transform the face of urban environments than municipal governments. With oversight of building permits, critical services, urban boundaries, and often as large landowners in their own right, cities have exceptional means to promote and enforce change. City-owned or -managed utilities for water, sewer, and electricity can provide crucial assets to advance conservation goals. And cities are significant purchasers of architectural design and construction services for public projects. Combined, these tools create a highly visible platform for change because they present the power to lead by example. Match this with city governments' clear mission to be stewards of the common good and trustees of important natural resources, public health, and high-quality community environments—and the transformational authority is even more evident.

There are a number of key tactics to bolster successful, homegrown green building initiatives.

Understand the local green building market.

One size does not fit all for green building initiatives. Take the time to research and understand local development trends, opportunities, and regulatory barriers. Research is essential to analyze data such as historical information and forecasts. For existing urban areas, some of the trends to follow may be renovation of existing buildings, urban infill redevelopment, workforce housing, or institutional and healthcare projects. Incentives, training, and pilot projects can be matched to upcoming development activity. This approach also involves taking the time to get to know the local industry influencers, opinion leaders, and key investors—and understanding their challenges and concerns. Such personal relationships can garner helpful input as well as political support when designing new policies and programs.

Partner to leverage resources

By forming partnerships with other forward-thinking organizations, including privately held utilities, cities can expand efforts, add political capital, and increase chances of success. Training programs can be co-funded or co-hosted by non-governmental organizations and industry associations. Alliances around large, highly visible programs such as waterfront developments, affordable housing initiatives, and historic preservation projects are effective vehicles to increase awareness and demonstrate value. Partnerships can also include a coordinated communications strategy using a common vocabulary related to green building to help reduce confusion in the marketplace.

Recognize change is a process

It is critical to achieve success with those risk-takers who are willing to try new green building innovations as they emerge. Collaboration to ensure early "wins" is a well-traveled road to victory. More-traditional players in the industry will eventually follow the pioneers. Acknowledge that people embrace change at different rates; risk-takers may be out front, but the skeptics will follow eventually. Many shades of green exist. Remember that not everyone will be ready to take on the deeper green shades, but may step more tentatively into new ideas.

Follow three steps to success

A targeted carrot-and-stick approach is a process that reinforces early market adoption to facilitate broader engagement. These steps are not a one-time experience, but should cycle back to repeat themselves as new innovations appear in the development arena.

• Support voluntary measures that introduce green building concepts and create awareness. Offer tools and technical assistance to builders, and share case studies that include cost-benefit data to business owners. Present workshops and review code regulations with developers on a group or individual basis. Celebrate early successes.

• Create incentives to help expand adoption and make green building more attractive to skeptics. Look at tax breaks, favorable financing or insurance terms, expedited permitting, and other tools.

• Implement mandatory requirements once the foundation of market adoption is established and the industry has had a chance to prepare. Regulatory requirements can eventually provide a base level of green building performance, with incentives layered on top to push further beyond standard practice.

Communities ready to capture the opportunity to advance green building programs will achieve more than overcoming the dampening effects of prolonged economic downturn. They will position themselves for a stronger, more sustainable future.

Lucia Athens is a senior sustainable futures strategist with CollinsWoerman, an architecture, planning, and interior design firm in Seattle. Previously, she led the City of Seattle green building program. This essay is based on her book Building an Emerald City: A Green Guide to Green Building Policies and Programs, published in 2010 by Island Press (islandpress.org). She can be reached atlathens@collinswoerman.com.