‘Heat islands’: racist housing policies in US linked to deadly heatwave exposure


Deadly heat islands which have fewer green spaces and tree canopy linked to racist policies in urban neighborhoods, study finds

Deadly urban heatwaves disproportionately affect underserved neighborhoods because of the legacy of racist housing policies which have denied African Americans home ownership and basic public service, a landmark new study has found.

Extreme heat kills hundreds of people in the US every year- more than any other hazardous weather event, including hurricanes, tornadoes and inundating, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Heatwaves have been occurring more frequently since the mid-2 0th century, and are expected to become more common, more severe and longer-lasting due to the climate crisis.

However, exposure to extreme heat is unequal: temperatures in different neighborhoods within the same city can vary by 20 F. It is largely lower-income households and communities of color who live in these urban” heat islands” which have historically had fewer green spaces and tree canopy, and more concrete and pavements and thus are less equipped to cope with the mounting effects of global heating.

This new study reveals how current temperature disparities echo the legacy of past racially motivated town planning. Urban neighborhoods denied municipal services and support for home ownership during the course of its mid-2 0th century are now the hottest areas in 94% of the 108 cities analysed by researchers at Portland State University and the Science Museum of Virginia.


” This systematic pattern indicates a woefully negligent planning system that hyper-privileges richer and whiter communities ,” said Vivek Shandas, prof of urban studies and planning at Portland State University who authors the paper.

The study, published today in the publication Climate , is the first to examine the link between historical housing policies to disproportionate exposure to current deadly heatwaves.

” As climate change brings hotter, more frequent and longer heatwaves, the same historically underserved neighborhoods- often where lower-income households and communities of color still live- will face the greatest impact ,” Shandas added.

Globally, temperatures have been rising since the commencement of the 20 th century, with 18 of the 19 warmest years on record resulting since 2001.

Each year, more than 600 Americans die and 65, 000 or so seek emergency medical care for excessive heat exposure. As heatwaves become increasingly frequent and severe, scientists expect to see an increase in deaths and illness, particularly among vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, economically disadvantaged communities, and those with pre-existing conditions like heart disease, asthma and diabetes

This new study examined the link between historic “redlining” and current hot islands.

Beginning in the 1930 s, some, mostly African American neighborhoods- designated with red lines- were categorized as too risky for investment, and denied home loan and insurance.

As a outcome, the housing stock fell into disrepair, and residents were unable to create wealth through homeownership or move into ” better ” suburban neighborhoods, which intensified segregation and wealth inequalities. Redlined neighborhoods also had the lowest public and private investment.

Researchers utilized satellite images to analyse the relationship between summertime surface temperatures and “redlining” in 108 cities across the country.

Nationally, the study find formerly “redlined” neighborhoods are 5F warmer, on average, than non-redlined neighborhoods.

However, the difference is much starker in some cities. For example in Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado, researchers find a 12 to 13 F discrepancies between formerly redlined and non-redlined neighborhoods, compared with 1-2 F in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and Flint, Michigan.

” The patterns of the lowest temperatures in specific neighborhoods do not occur because of circumstance or coincidence. They are a result of decades of intentional investment in parks, green spaces, trees, transportation and housing policies that provided’ cool services ‘, which also are in accordance with being wealthier and whiter throughout the country … neighborhoods are not built equal ,” said Shandas.” We are now watching how those policies are literally killing those most vulnerable to acute heat .”

” This study is a textbook lawsuit of how structural racism in housing compounds environmental, climate and health risks ,” Dr Robert Bullard, distinguished prof of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, told the Guardian.” Zip code is still a potent predictor of health and well-being … environmental vulnerability maps closely with racial injustice .”

Redlining was banned in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but those neighborhoods are still predominantly home to lower-income communities and communities of color who are disproportionately exposed to a variety of environmental hazards such as lead, poor water and air quality, over developing and limited shade.

Numerous studies have exposed the legacy of these historic policies in racial disparities in healthcare, be made available to healthy food, incarceration and public resources allotted for schools, transport and and other public infrastructure.

Now, these results illustrate a need for better urban planning and climate mitigation policies.

” Our study is just the first step in identifying a roadmap toward equitable climate resilience by addressing these systemic patterns in our cities ,” said coauthor Jeremy Hoffman of the Science Museum of Virginia.

Shandas added:” By recognizing and centering the historical gaffes of the planning profession over the past century, we stand a better chance for reducing the public health and infrastructure impacts from a warming planet .”

Read more: www.theguardian.com


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