By Patrick Starr

This week, Mayor Nutter signed Philadelphia's first green building law, requiring that new city-owned buildings of a certain size must meet heightened environmental standards. The mayor and City Council deserve credit for a measure that will improve the city's finances and sustainability.

Heating and cooling city-owned buildings costs taxpayers more than $30 million a year. With the cost of energy going up, this law meets an immediate need to reduce energy costs while meeting long-term goals to minimize waste, storm-water runoff, and water use.

Several years ago, a Pennsylvania Environmental Council report, "Building Green: Overcoming Barriers in Philadelphia," looked at how the city could become more competitive in the area of green development. The report found that the city's shortage of examples of green buildings and green technologies had inhibited the adoption of green building practices. Private-sector developers were often reluctant to risk trying something new.

The report called on the city to lead by example by implementing green strategies and proven technologies on its own projects before asking the private sector to do so. The suggestion was taken up by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who sponsored the green building bill.

Green buildings are designed to lower utility bills, reduce carbon emissions, conserve water, and reduce flooding. Furthermore, studies have found that green offices improve employee productivity, that children educated in green classrooms score higher on standardized tests, and that green homes are selling faster than conventional ones.

The city green building law will help Philadelphia catch up with other cities - including Los Angeles, Boston, and Dallas - that have already committed to environmentally responsible construction of public buildings. As of 2008, Philadelphia had only 30 structures certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. New York had 79, San Francisco 91, Portland 93, and Chicago 130.

This bill will help the city take the lead without imposing any regulations on the private sector. As the city rewrites its zoning code, prepares for a new comprehensive plan, and implements the sustainability goals outlined in "Greenworks Philadelphia," City Council and the mayor may look at tax credits and other incentives to promote green building on a larger scale. While barriers to building green still need attention, this law removes a big one and sets the tone for the future.

Patrick Starr is senior vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. He can be reached at pstarr@pecpa.org.