Charlotte leads the way toward sustainable cities

City leaders have been envisioning more livable cities, with low-impact workplaces, efficient neighborhoods, thriving ecosystems, resilient electricity grids, and more. Today, many are ready to begin turning their vision of a sustainable community into a reality.

In the face of ever-present budget constraints, one strategy is collaborating with the business community. Cities are no stranger to partnerships, for example, on large development projects. But in the sustainability realm, partnerships are focusing more on improving coordination among key stakeholders.

A prime example is unfolding in Charlotte, North Carolina, a financial and energy hub of the South. In Charlotte, like many other cities, local public and private leaders have been working to improve the sustainability of their organizations, but have struggled to overcome challenges such as how to engage individuals and track and measure success.

Through a series of conversations between the CEOs of Duke Energy and Cisco, the Mayor of Charlotte, and the head of Charlotte Center City Partners, a local nonprofit, local leaders realized they shared a common vision and common challenges. The idea for a new nonprofit, Envision Charlotte, was born. It was launched in 2010 with public and private leaders on its board, and the first goal was to help Charlotte’s commercial buildings become the most efficient in the country. A super-efficient urban core would give the city a competitive economic advantage, demonstrate its commitment to sustainability, and promote civic pride.

Envision Charlotte collaborated with utilities, technology companies, uptown property managers and businesses, and UNC Charlotte to install smart meters to track energy and water use in real time and work with building operators to identify and pursue building improvements. Through the Duke Energy Smart Energy Now project, building tenants were trained to champion energy-saving behaviors in the workplace. As a result of these efforts, building energy use in 61 buildings dropped by 16 percent. From 2011 to June 2015, that added up to $17 million in energy savings.

I’ve gotten to know Envision Charlotte through our work together on a Department of Energy-funded project to expand the reach of its programs. The organization can work with diverse interests more nimbly and replicate efforts more quickly than any one stakeholder can — two reasons local leaders are so supportive of it. The campaigns and solutions that emerge, such as the “Crab You’re It” office energy-saving campaign and lunch-and-learns with building facilities managers are grassroots and generate excitement in the communities they touch, making their implementation more feasible.

And now, Charlotte’s success is poised to spread. Envision Charlotte is working with the White House to spin off a new non-profit – Envision America – to help 10 other cities deploy smart technologies using its collaborative model.

The approach is not without challenges. Coordinators need to understand the variety of motivations and capabilities that influence participation by different stakeholders. And with no roadmap for how to achieve goals collaboratively, it can be tempting for each to “go it alone” instead of finding ways to go farther together. But perhaps this is where Envision Charlotte’s secret sauce lies. Although collaborating requires time, brainpower, or funds, these investments can be far outweighed by the individual and community gains of more sustainable cities and neighborhoods where we can work, live and play.