The grass may not be any greener than it was two years ago in America’s largest metro regions, but the buildings are. More than one in five U.S. cities with populations greater than 50,000 now have green building policies and regulations in place, according to a new report from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Additionally, many elected officials are looking at sustainability as the ultimate stimulus tool in a down economy.

The study, Green Building Policy in a Changing Economic Environment, reached out to 661 cities and found that 138 large cities (which collectively house 53 million people) have green programs in place, up from just 92 cities in 2007. That bandwagon now includes 24 of the nation’s 25 most populous metro regions.

“It is encouraging that cities are recognizing the economic benefits of energy-efficient buildings, and equally encouraging that the number of programs across the country are increasing despite such difficult economic conditions,” said AIA Executive Vice President and CEO, Christine McEntee. “Our ultimate goal is to achieve carbon neutrality in buildings by 2030 and that all design projects will be sustainable as a matter of course.”

Not surprisingly, the Western region is leading the charge, with 56 cities in just six West Coast states representing 41% of all green building programs. The Mountain region boasts the second greatest share of green initiatives (24%), although the East Coast has seen a 75% jumpe in the last two years, with 49 Eastern cities now reporting formalized efforts to improve energy efficiency, reduce waste, and lower carbon emissions.

The Central region weighed in with the fewest green initiatives overall, with just 21 of its big municipalities reporting eco-strategies. However, many of the programs that compose its share are considered to be among the nation’s most pioneering, including large-scale efforts in Chicago; Austin, Texas; and Grand Rapids, Mich.

“My passion for sustainability really comes out of the social side of the ‘triple bottom line,’” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. “I think that we are at the point now where arguments around cost have been proven to be, if not fallacious, at least weak arguments when you look at the long term costs of maintaining a green building.” (Click here for an audio interview with Mayor Heartwell.)

Anecdotal interviews conducted by AIA director of local relations Brooks Rainwater, who authored the study, confirmed that few, if any cities have revised their policy guidelines in light of the recession. Rather, many mayors are integrating green building policies into wider economic development goals that include green job programs, sustainable business incentives, green retrofit initiatives, and similar measures.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, for one, sees green building as a means of making his city more competitive in attracting new business. He is also pushing for financial incentives such as permit rebates to stimulate local construction activity.

Chuck Reed, mayor of San Jose, Calif., holds a similar view, and has set ambitious goals for the next decade with his “Green Vision to 2022” initiative. The blueprint calls for the creation of 25,000 new green jobs, a 50% overall reduction in energy usage, a wholesale shift to recycled rainwater and electrical power from clean renewable sources, 50 million square feet of LEED certified buildings, and a program that would divert city waste from landfills and repurpose it for energy production.  Mayor Reed is also calling for the planting of 100,000 new trees and the creation of 100 miles of interconnected biking and walking trails.

The AIA report also includes detailed case studies of extensive green building programs in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Nashville, and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Many cities are earmarking Recovery Act funding toward green building programs as the federal allocation of $3.2 billion trickles its way down to local governments via Energy Efficiency and Conservation block grants.

“The downturn has had a devastating effect on construction generally, but sustainable building design continues to maintain and improve its market share,” Rainwater noted. “Builders and developers are playing a proactive role, and in many cases green policies could not be implemented without the involvement of the development community. You need a holistic approach in order for these policies to work.”

So far, most green legislative activity at the municipal level has focused on the construction and retrofitting of individual buildings, which account for 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions. But Rainwater says momentum is mounting for sustainable reforms that are district-wide or regional in scope, taking into consideration larger issues of land use, density, traffic patterns, and public transit routes.

“We're starting to see more concentrations on [imposing] growth boundaries and neighborhood planning. That's where the future has to go because there's only so much you can accomplish by regulating individual buildings,” he says.

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor covering architecture, design and community planning for BUILDER.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL, San Jose, CA, Austin, TX, Phoenix, AZ, Grand Rapids, MI, Los Angeles, CA.