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Racist housing policies have created some oppressively hot neighborhoods

Source(s):  National Geographic Society (NGS)

By Alejandra Borunda

Decades of redlining and other discriminatory practices reshaped urban landscapes in Minneapolis and elsewhere, leaving some areas 10 degrees hotter than others.


Such decisions have resulted in measurable differences in heat. A recent study found that in more than 100 American cities, neighbourhoods that were “redlined” in the 1930s—deliberately discriminated against on racial grounds, in-home loans and other economic support—are today, on average, about 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than un-redlined neighbourhoods in the same city.


Dark surfaces like paved roads or tar-covered rooftops readily absorb heat from the sun. They also tend to hold onto that heat more tightly than natural materials like loose dirt or plants. Big, densely clustered buildings do the same. Once heated up, they release the heat only slowly into the surrounding air like hot, stale breath.


But trees grow where they grow, and neighbourhoods look how they look, because of choices made in the past.


“We kept showing this map to different groups, and it was like a Rorschach test of their background and interests,” she says. Health experts, for example, noticed that the covenant-free, redlined areas of the map corresponded disturbingly well with the areas they knew had high asthma rates and low birth weights—conditions associated with exposure to air pollution and other environmental hazards. A local food expert saw that stands of fruit trees were abundant in neighbourhoods where whites-only covenants had been common. In one of the most striking examples, Delegard recalls, a city council member exclaimed that her map of racial segregation looked just like a map of street tree cover.


According to the Centers for Disease Control, heat kills more than 700 people each year in the U.S. One recent study suggests the actual number may be nearly 10 times larger.


Climate change will increase risks. And residents of northern cities, which were not built with extreme heat in mind, maybe particularly vulnerable. For example, the 1995 Chicago heatwave killed over 700 people, primarily elderly people of colour who lived without air conditioning in the hottest parts of the city, where temperatures were likely higher than the officially recorded values.

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  • Publication date 02 Sep 2020

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