The Way Forward For Greener Cities

Innovative funding solutions and partnerships have a major role in creating greener cities.

By Lisa Brown
From the October 2023 Issue


Local government leaders, from mayors to city council members to county commissioners, and other stakeholders, can have a substantial impact on the health and resiliency of their respective communities—especially when it comes to creating greener cities. Municipal government is where vital work happens to make cities more resilient in the short and long-term by improving outdated infrastructure, making strides to address climate change, and cutting utility and other costs to boost the local economy. What it means to be a greener, “smarter city,” depends on the city’s unique sustainability objectives, which can encompass anything from reaching net zero emissions to accelerating digital transformation to conserving energy or water—or other targets entirely.

Greener Cities
(Photos: Adobe Stock / TensorSpark)

However, local leaders are up against tight timelines, such as achieving net zero by 2050,¹ and face mounting pressures to meet commitments without always having the budget or resources to implement necessary changes. Not only are residents, businesses, and civic organizations advocating for more resilient cities these days, there are a growing number of federal and state legislative mandates for city leaders to comply with and track against, adding pressure to an already urgent undertaking.

Top Sustainability Challenges For City Leaders

What sort of pressures are city leaders facing, exactly? In addition to expedited timelines to meet sustainability mandates, they’re also dealing with competing priorities—making it difficult to decide how to allocate their shrinking budgets and factor in rising costs. They may also be unsure of how green policies and regulations are trending or simply lack the resources to prioritize these efforts. Additionally, while residents and other members of the community are often pushing for green initiatives, municipal leaders can be reluctant to make the big, sometimes even extreme, changes needed to meet ambitious goals. Finally, one of the most common challenges for city leaders is limited access to financing or awareness of their multiple funding options.

Collective steps to apply sustainable investments to a community can improve its bottom line by reducing utility costs, preventing unexpected equipment failures, saving water, and more.

Why Prioritize Sustainable Cities?

With so many potential challenges, it only makes sense that many local leaders question whether to tackle these initiatives now or table them for a later date. However, many leaders agree that, for the health of our communities and our planet, it’s critical to consider the compelling reasons why sustainability is worth prioritizing despite the obstacles.

Many leaders know that these efforts deliver a real return on investment—especially when cities are future-focused and understand that economic vibrancy is the goal. Collective steps to apply sustainable investments to a community can improve its bottom line by reducing utility costs, preventing unexpected equipment failures, saving water, and more. By doing so, city leaders are also advancing their other goals, such as making their communities places that people want to live, work, and serve in for the long haul. Updating facilities to be more modern and efficient improves the overall quality of life of residents and enables businesses and tourism to thrive.

Greener Cities
Collective steps to apply sustainable investments to a community can improve its bottom line by reducing utility costs, preventing unexpected equipment failures, saving water, and more. (Photo: Adobe Stock / AdriFerrer)


Additionally, city leaders need to remember that gradual steps in the right direction make a difference—the focus should be progress, not perfection. It’s not necessary to accomplish every big sustainability project straight out of the gate. For example, starting small might look like retrofitting an older building instead of building a brand new one. In general, the rule of thumb is that it’s always better (and more cost-effective) to be proactive, rather than trying to catch up to sustainability deadlines down the road.

Now that we’re on the same page about why local government leaders should focus on sustainability, let’s dive a little deeper into one of the main sticking points—which involves securing funding to bring these projects to life—and the outcomes.

Thinking Outside The Box For Funding

A 2022 survey from Johnson Controls found that, for just under half of local government leaders surveyed, financing stood in the way of achieving smart city objectives. Traditionally, sustainability projects have been funded by taking out loans or increasing residents’ taxes to cover upfront costs. But for leaders seeking alternatives, there are many different funding vehicles to help them make critical updates to their facilities. Here are a few common options:

  • Government programs: State and federal funding for resiliency initiatives can be provided by government programs like the American Rescue Plan Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act.
  • Public-private partnerships: In these mutually beneficial collaborations between local governments and private enterprises, cities gain access to innovative technologies and specialized knowledge, while private companies earn valuable contracts.
  • Performance contracts: These contracts enable projects to pay for themselves through savings generated over time. The responsibility and risk for infrastructure performance falls on the organization’s trusted partner, who typically serves as an advisor from the project’s start to finish.

As an example, Johnson Controls and NRG Park, in Texas, together with Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation (HCSCC), have entered into a 20-year energy savings performance contract that is expected to generate, and be funded through, more than $54 million in cost savings at one of the nation’s largest and busiest sports and entertainment complexes. In addition to helping Harris County reach its goal of a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, the project will generate surplus savings to be reinvested back into the Harris County community.

The Perks Of Partnerships

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Partnerships are extremely valuable for city leaders looking to achieve sustainability goals. After all, local governments don’t have to travel the road to net zero and other green milestones alone. This is especially true since meeting green city objectives often requires deep technical expertise that municipal leaders might not have internally. Partnering with organizations that are familiar with the ins and outs of sustainable infrastructure, state-of-the-art building systems technology, and innovative financing solutions helps local leaders move projects along more quickly and effectively. For example, municipal leaders can rely on outside experts’ knowledge of how digital tools can be used to proactively monitor projects, maintain and increase efficiency and streamline tracking and reporting.

In summary, local governments are under pressure to create greener cities and have seemingly endless hurdles to overcome, but by learning about innovative financing solutions and collaborating with industry experts, leaders can assess their community’s current infrastructure, clarify their sustainability vision, and ultimately come up with future-thinking, yet realistic, steps forward.



Lisa Brown, Johnson ControlsBrown is the National Senior Director at Johnson Controls where she is responsible for the growth of the local government market in North America. Her specialties lie in strategic planning, business development, performance contracting and contract negotiations, among others.

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