This past decade witnessed one of the biggest urban building booms in the nation’s history.  Memphis enjoyed its share of higher-density multifamily construction, renovation and conversion within its borders, particularly in its downtown.

As we find footing in the wake of the housing market meltdown and ponder what market share multifamily should represent in this city, I would like to offer one consideration that has received little attention: multifamily living as green living.

Multifamily housing is key for any city that longs for viable, urban neighborhoods.  It brings a density that is absolutely necessary for any substantive level of pedestrian activity, which itself is the hallmark of great urban design and great cities.    (For the record, I’m not talking about multifamily built on a superblock interspersed in diagonal patterns around parking lots, but multifamily built close to the street with parking in the rear.  Think 1920s apartments, not 1970s.)

Most Memphians have historically turned away from multifamily housing as desirable living quarters, more so than their metropolitan peers around the nation.  But, a small contingency of young professionals, singles and, increasingly empty nesters have formed a reliable customer base for Memphis’ apartment owners and condominium developers.  I think these owners and developers should add a fourth group to this list as they market themselves: the “greens.”

Multifamily is green in three principal ways:

1.  Landscaping. With the exception of gardening and xeriscaping, large yards are essentially wasteful and represent a substantial environmental cost.  There’s the gasoline required to fuel the lawnmower, the plastic bags that are used to collect the clippings, the gasoline that the truck uses to get the clippings to the landfill and, of course, the landfill itself.  Then there’s the irrigation needed to keep everything living before the whole process is repeated.  While good multifamily buildings should certainly contain landscaping around them, the per-capita environmental cost is far lower.

Consider this: I live in an 18-unit building surrounded by roughly 2000 square feet of irrigated beds and 1600 square feet of irrigated lawn on a ½ acre site.  That totals to about 200 square feet of irrigated landscaping per household.  With the average size of a lot in Memphis at about ¼ acre with roughly half of that, or 5000 square feet, made up of lawns, my neighbors and I are 25 times as green as our single family counterparts.

2.  Proximity. Since multifamily typically serves as a “buffer” between single-family and commercial uses, it is in closer proximity to stores, offices and the like.  This proximity reduces drives to everyday errands and the workplace; in fact, it may even turn a drive into a walk.  Reducing drive time reduces carbon emissions, thereby making for a cleaner city.

Consider this: My building is within a 5-minute walk to two grocery stores, two pharmacies, a coffee shop, countless restaurants and bars, a church, four convenience stores, four cleaners, three hair salons, two package stores, an ice cream shop, two banks and a soon-to-be-opened yogurt shop.  With a 10-minute walk, you exponentially increase these figures and add a movie theatre and four live theaters.  One of my neighbors has no car, two share a car and I have witnessed many of the rest walk to and fro this list of establishments.  These walking and short driving trips represent a fraction of the fossil fuels that would be required of the same 18 households in single-family settings.

3.  Energy Efficiency. In addition to the energy saved from reduced landscaping and vehicular usage, multifamily units are also more efficient to heat and cool.  Since a smaller percentage of the housing unit is exposed to the elements, it is more efficient to heat and cool multiple households under one roof than under multiple roofs.  In addition, multifamily units tend to be smaller than single-family units, further increasing their energy efficiency.

With imminent passage of the Unified Development Code and consideration of the Midtown Overlay District by the City, development of good multifamily housing should become easier in Memphis.  With the City attempting to create greater density in its core, and with so many Memphians now claiming to be “green,” let’s work hard to put the two together so we can enjoy the same kind of viable urban neighborhoods that are becoming the norm in Nashville, Atlanta and many of our other peer cities.