How One Green City Is Going Global

ZGF Architects has been shaping the Portland, Ore., skyline for more than 70 years. The Portland Convention Center, the KOIN Center skyscraper, and the sleek glass-canopy extension for Portland International Airport were all designed by the firm, with its signature dedication to sustainable and aesthetically pleasing design.

As it has grown, ZGF Architects has left its fingerprints on projects not only around the country but also across the globe. International work used to constitute only 1 or 2 percent of ZGF’s business, says Bob Packard, a managing partner. Today, it accounts for about 15 percent, and the firm is angling for more. “We have shied away from just doing a building in some city around the world just to say we have a building that we’re doing,” Packard says. “It’s been very much participating in the development of communities around the world that have a strong interest in the notion of good architecture and good sustainable-planning practices, and not participating in the wild building that has been going on in certain parts of the world.”

In the hopes of attracting more high-impact international projects for ZGF Architects and like-minded local businesses, Portland in 2012 launched the We Build Green Cities initiative, a one-of-a-kind attempt to leverage the city’s green reputation to boost exports and the regional economy. National Journal has honored this unique project as the winner in our category of expanding exports.

Economists and business leaders alike recognize that exports, of not just products but also services, are key to America’s prosperity in the reshaped postrecession economy. In 2010, President Obama launched the National Export Initiative with the ambition of doubling exports by the end of 2014. The payoff could be enormous: For every $1 billion the United States generates in exports, about 5,400 jobs are created, according to the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Yet research shows that strikingly few American companies—less than 1 percent of 30 million firms—sell abroad.

After Obama set that national goal in 2010, the greater Portland area—where one-fifth of the economy is already supported by exports—followed in 2012 with its own customized business plan to double exports, developing a strategy to internationally market goods and services across many industries. One of that plan’s key components is the We Build Green Cities initiative. The effort involves a partnership with local and state economic development agencies—the Portland Development Commission, Greater Portland Inc., and Business Oregon—as well as the nonprofit Portland Sustainability Institute and the city. No other metropolitan area has tried to pool and market its strengths in quite the same way.

Bike lanes, solar panels, locally sourced food, and green development practices have become so much a part of the city’s identity that it made sense to capitalize on that global brand, said Mitsuhiro Yamazaki, business and industry manager at the Portland Development Commission and one of the leaders of the effort.

“We wanted to take advantage of the brand we have in Portland to sell this green image better, but more in a tactical manner for company growth,” he said. “In the past, when mayors and governors have traveled throughout the world, what they really get is questions around sustainable development in Portland, and we didn’t have a lot of things to offer. We didn’t have the story line.”

The first phase of We Build Green Cities involved city leaders talking up Portland’s sophisticated urban-development strategy, unveiling a sleek video telling the story of Portland’s transformation into a hub for sustainability, and launching a website that has a directory of businesses that do sustainable planning and development work in the city.

The current iteration involves a more proactive approach, as Yamazaki takes Portland business leaders on global trade missions to make sales. In mid-April, representatives of four Portland companies—ZGF Architects, engineering firm Glumac, construction and design company CH2M Hill, and landscape architecture firm Murase Associates—traveled to Japan, which is on a mission to make tsunami-battered areas of the country less dependent on traditional sources of energy. The timing couldn’t be better, said Packard, as nations around the globe, particularly in Asia and Latin America, grapple with the challenge of creating livable, efficient cities for booming middle-class populations.

“Under We Build Green Cities, we’re not going to tour; we’re really there to discuss opportunities to sell,” Yamazaki said. “Nobody has done this together as a metro region.” If the project continues to grow, other communities may soon be asking why not.


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