Over the summer, I wrote a book called The Race Awakening of 2020: A 6 Step Guide For Moving Forward. The book was written over a weekend of despair as I tried to cope with what is going on this country related to racial injustice. My wife and I were having very difficult conversations with our kids about Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others. At the same time, white friends were contacting me and asking, “How could they help or what could they do differently?”
My book was written to answer those questions. At one point in the book, I discuss the historically discriminatory practice of “Redlining” and how it led to inequities, disparities in crime, economic opportunities, and access to housing. A new study points out that it also places certain neighborhoods at greater risks from extreme heat.
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – JULY 28: A man walks down a Baltimore street near where a person was recently … [+] murdered on July 28, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. President Donald Trump has recently drawn criticism by calling the city of Baltimore “disgusting.” While the struggling city has a number of affluent areas, it has a stubborn crime problem and has one of the highest murder rates in the nation for a city of any size. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
I am an atmospheric scientist and professor at the University of Georgia who studies extreme weather and climate events. My research is mostly focused on rainfall, hurricanes, and urban weather. My interest in urban weather collided with a curiosity about social vulnerability in a 2015 study with former graduate student Dr Binita KC, now a data scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She found in her doctoral work that certain counties in Georgia were more vulnerable to extreme climate events because of the socio-economic attributes and lack of resiliency within their populations.
Because of our work, I was not surprised by the findings in a new study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (APA). The 2020 study is entitled, “Urban Heat Management and the Legacy of Redlining.” What is redlining? As I wrote in my book, “By the way, “redlining” is exactly what it says….Areas on maps with sizable Black populations were outlined in red (early in the last century) as an indicator to mortgage lenders and other financial institutions.” According to Brittanica.com, “Neighbourhoods in more-affluent areas, which were deemed the most worthy of loans, were usually outlined in blue or green.” This practice shaped the social, economic, and political status of many neighborhoods today.
Developed land (red) around Baltimore.
It shaped weather-related health risks too. According to the aforementioned study, areas within Dallas, Kansas City, and Baltimore targeted for what the authors called “systematic disinvestment” had higher average land surface temperatures, which is often (but not always) a good indicator of air temperature. It is well known that cities are warmer than surrounding rural or suburban areas because of the urban heat island. Urban areas have more heat-absorbing materials, less trees, and more human-generated waste heat so tend to be warmer. A 2015 study by my former graduate student Dr. Neil Debbage, a professor at University of Texas-San Antonio, ranked the major urban heat islands in the United States.
Urban heat islands coupled with extreme heat from summer heatwaves and the backdrop of climate change can place already marginalized communities at greater risk. Unfortunately, people in historically redlined communities are already disproportionately in the lower tier of the economic and health distributions. More extreme heat leads to more health disparities, higher energy bills, and so forth.
Land surface temperatures. Hotter areas are white and correspond with more developed areas.
Ayana Shepherd has a Master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Florida State University. She spent nearly a decade as a management consultant working on housing and community development issues in frontline communities. She also happens to be my wife. She told me, “Redlining is not only bad but it’s unethical…Redlining keeps otherwise qualified individuals and families out of certain areas based solely on race or ethnicity.” It also creates a long-term health risk as climate continues to warm, and heatwave severity increases. Shepherd goes on to say, “Redlining creates de facto segregation by defining who is or is not a desirable neighbor.”
Sadly we still see this today in explicit forms of redlining or in more subtle forms when people take flight from neighborhoods or schools because they are “changing.”