“We have to make our buildings more sustainable. It is not only a moral imperative and an environmental imperative, it is an economic imperative.”  U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said this in a keynote address at ULI’s Fall Meeting in Denver Oct. 19

Donovan led off a panel of experts in government, academia, business, and the arts who discussed how people, communities and companies can thrive in a rapidly changing world. Joining him were Robert B. Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor; Thomas Murphy, a ULI senior resident fellow and former mayor of Pittsburgh; Robin Chase, founder and chief executive officer of Buzzcar and co-founder and former chief executive of Zipcar; and Peter Byck, director and producer of the film Carbon Nation. Marc Gunther, senior writer and editor for FORTUNE Magazine, moderated the discussion.

Donovan outlined how government initiatives—paired with market-based solution and private capital—can help create sustainable buildings, neighborhoods, and regions that are competitive in the new economy. For example, he noted that over the past three years, the Obama administration has awarded $270 million in Sustainable Communities Grants to support local efforts  such  as Denver’s development of affordable housing along its FasTracks project, which includes more than 100 miles of new light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit lines.

In the past, Donovan noted, companies would decide where they wanted to locate depending on the nearby availability of resources, and people would follow. Today, he said, “We create great places, and employees and capital follow.”

“Are we going to invest in the infrastructure that we need to make regions competitive?” Donovan asked.

Reich noted that, while jobs are coming back to the economy, the median wage in the U.S. has been falling for the past 11 years.  He asserted that globalization and rapid technological change, often blamed for falling wages, do not have to dictate a decline in living standards or relegate Americans to low-wage service jobs. “Manufacturing is an export industry in Germany,” Reich told the group. “It’s because of the value added…German engineering and precision manufacturing.”

In addition to institutions that provide four-year college degrees, the nation needs community colleges and other institutions that can prepare workers for the many technician jobs that accompany high-tech businesses, Reich said. “We are making a choice by default right now,” he noted.

Murphy stressed the need for an entrepreneurial culture in government, and at universities, which he cites as a vital source of growth for communities. Access to capital is necessary for an entrepreneurial culture, he added. And, he said, “without a strong government, I don’t believe you’re going to have a successful community.”

Chase detailed ways in which a culture of sharing, instead of ownership, is transforming the way people consume goods and services. The car-sharing pioneer described how grassroots-up development of internet-enabled sharing services could transform markets for automobiles, taxi and freight delivery services, hotels, and office space. For example, she cited the Airbnb.com website, which links travelers to people willing to rent rooms in their homes. It’s only four years old but offers 650,000 rooms in 192 countries. “It should make you guys really afraid,” she said, referring to the real estate development industry.

“Watch out for what is going on because it really is the future in the new economy,” Chase said.

Addressing the topic of climate change, filmmaker Byck said he has encountered many people who dispute the notion that human activity is warming the planet, but who nevertheless value measures that lead to clean water, clean air, and conservation of resources. “There are a lot of people who are not buying the climate change argument, but they’re doing amazing things,” he said. The point of his documentary film, Carbon Nation, is that “there are solutions to climate change.”

He pointed to “unintended benefits” associated with green measures, such as cities adding hybrids to their fleet of police cars and finding crime rates reduced as police drove more miles. And, he noted, building green buildings will help attract young, educated workers whose services are in demand in the new economy.

“The smart kids are going to want to work in a clean building,” Byck said.