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Living in a walkable urban neighborhood comes with obvious benefits – no long morning commutes, access to a myriad of activities and opportunities all on foot, and the cost savings that comes with not owning and driving two private vehicles.

As more people move back to cities, reclaiming this foundational lifestyle, what is the impact on our planet and climate change?

That is the question Christopher Leinberger attempts to answer in an EcoHome article entitled “Walkable Urbanism Combats Climate Change.”  Leinberger compiles the facts, finding that living in urban areas is not only convenient and cost effective; it reduces our carbon footprints in a major way.

Households that move from a drivable suburban single-family home to a walkable urban multifamily residence reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions anywhere from 50-80%.  This reduction is achieved solely by less energy being consumed by their housing and transportation, without any other change in behavior.

This is great news for our planet, especially since the market is demanding more and more walkable, urban housing options.  We are in an ideal situation – what is good for us is what we actually want, for the first time in a long time.

Of course with every utopic living situation comes challenges and eventual pushback to the way things were before.  It’s important to remember that all real estate development is cyclical, so if we really want walkable urbanism to stick it out for the long-term and truly combat climate change, we should keep in mind a few things.

Pricing and affordability

Already, prices for walkable, urban multifamily units are skyrocketing.  According to Leinberger, in metro D.C., walkable, urban for-sale housing sells at a 71% price premium on a per square foot basis.  An article in the New York Times in May 2012 candidly pointed out that “Walking isn’t just good for you.  It has become an indicator of your socioeconomic status.” In order to keep walkable urban areas from becoming “gated communities” open only to the elite, it’s critical that policies are in place encouraging development of quality affordable housing for all types of people.

Making and keeping urban areas compelling

Gorilla Yogis take over a park in Minneapolis.

If rents continue to rise indefinitely in these areas, what’s to keep people from moving back to inexpensive homes in the suburbs once a major car company releases a super efficient and affordable electric vehicle that frees people from the fluctuating expense of gasoline?  Walkable, urban homes can’t just be convenient to retain residents long-term.  They must be compelling.

Walking to work is just one aspect of urban living.  In order to stay, people demand greater interaction and involvement with their surroundings.  The availability of parks and open space, arts and cultural programming, quality shopping and entertainment, and replacement of private lawns with public gardens, will all have an impact on people’s perception of the value of walkable urbanism.  In order to get younger families to stay, the issue of quality public schools in urban areas will need to be addressed.

Ensuring that we protect our planet while building new communities

While moving people back to cities will ultimately reduce GHG emissions and help combat other problems like obesity and the rising cost of living, what is the net effect when we factor in resources used for construction of hundreds of thousands of new urban homes across the country?  What we also need to consider is the immediate impact of harvesting natural resources to build these homes and the GHG emissions that occur during this labor-intensive process.

This is why it is critically important that developers not only consider where they are building but also how they are building.  While there has been an increase in LEED and other green building certified projects, many are flying under the radar without truly considering the impact of choices made regarding building materials and energy efficiency.

If we are really creating the utopic downtown that we have envisioned in our minds, we need to incorporate more renewable energy, more local and recycled materials, and less waste.  In the long run, if some urban dwellers do choose to exit cities again for the promise of a suburban lifestyle, the developers who took the time to build their projects right for a more sustainable future will be less impacted by a change in demand.

Are walkable, urban centers in areas safe from climate change? 

In a recent video released by the The Economist, Ryan Avent suggests that Minneapolis could become the next New York City.

Flooding in Atlantic City from Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images

“One way to offset at least the financial punch of climate change, says The Economist‘s economic correspondent, Ryan Avent, is for people to start migrating. Specifically, migrating to places like Minneapolis.”

As oceans continue to rise and we witness devastating effects of storms like Hurricane Sandy, it only makes sense that we invest in the right places that are sustainable amidst long-term climate change.