“Urban living is the most sustainable way to live.”

Andres Duany

In the wake of lower paying jobs and higher out-of-pocket expenses, sadly many of us are discovering that our lifestyle expectations are now unsustainable. I attribute this trend to an unprecedented structural shift in our nation’s core economic system—one that requires us to recalibrate our standard of living. With soaring energy costs, increasing fuel expenses, pricey real estate and environmental concerns taking hold, many people seek to capitalize on the advantages of dense urban living—high mobility areas that allow them to cut their living expenses by living and working in close proximity.

In light of these economic shifts we should take a hard look at the benefits of urban density in terms of creating a new model for cost-conscious living. A major catalyst for my thinking in this area comes from a report, which found that Bay Area residents spend an average of $41,420 annually on transportation and housing, amounting to 59% of the area’s median household income. Even more remarkable, 3/5 of all Bay Area residents live in communities unaffordable to households earning less than $80,000 annually.

The key finding from this report, however, is that the combined costs of housing and transportation are lowest in the most densely populated sections of the region, namely in Alameda and San Francisco counties. This speaks to a concept called “location efficiency,” which is defined as the proximity of housing to transportation nodes, jobs, and retail centers. This so-called clustering demonstrates that urban density has an essential role in supporting a lower cost of living in our nation’s metropolitan regions.

Housing in the Urban Core of Sacramento

Bucking the suburban migratory pattern, early adapters to this economic shift choose to live in urban centers where cost-of-living advantages and conveniences abound. This very topic was the focus of a recent conversation I had with a friend in Boston, who builds her lifestyle around the area’s walkable grid. She touts the city’s compactness, which allows easy access to her job at Harvard University as well to local amenities in neighboring communities and downtown. And while being without a car has its disadvantages at times, she is quick to point out the cost-effectiveness, particularly in a city rich with mobility options.

As my Boston friend attests, the core concept of urban density is “walkability,” which seeks to promote maximum accessibility in cities and communities. Designed efficiently walkable environs connect people with transportation centers, arts and entertainment venues, coffeehouses, libraries and other local and regional amenities in a manner that promotes cost-effective living. There is also evidence to suggest a correlation between more walkable neighborhoods and property values, thereby boosting homeowner return on investment.

It is this sort of economical thinking that companies like Zipcar and uHaul hope to capitalize on by offering cost-conscious solutions to urban dwellers. Both offer hourly, shared car membership services as an alternative to ownership. If you consider the additional cost of interest on a financed car, insurance and parking, let alone regular maintenance and fuel, these membership services can result in substantial savings for the infrequent driver.

uHauls New uCarShare Program is Growing in Popularity in Cities such as Portland, OR

Another economic trend is the number of grocery stores popping up in urban centers, a welcome development for urbanites who for years have lamented the lack of stores offering quality, reasonably priced food options. Cities such as San Diego, Milwaukee, and St Louis have all been at the forefront of the movement to offer urban style grocery retailers to their growing central city base.

Flexible office space options for telecommuters and entrepreneurs represent another emerging development to meet growing needs for cost effective, convenient workspaces. These coworking environments appeal to developers, writers and other independent creative sorts seeking to collaborate with like-minded people in a non-traditional office setting. Work settings like these appear to be most popular in areas such as Denver, San Francisco, New York and Toronto where there are dense clusters of professionals that thrive on idea incubation and social connection.

In the end, though, the biggest prize for those who embrace urban living are the wealth of opportunities for civic connection and community. As our nations cities make significant strides in repurposing their urban core, growing numbers of people are discovering of the cultural, social, and leisure advantages that density rich living affords. And you can’t put a price tag on that.

Michael Scott is an urban writer and researcher based in Folsom, California. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

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