A stunning visualization of how racist housing policies create urban heat islands

The New York Times has an extraordinary article—building on some earlier research from Yale Environment 360—that illustrates with frightening detail how racism, urban planning, and climate change go hand-in-hand. Using the city of Richmond as a microcosm, authors Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich explore the city's history through the lens of several individual lives who are impacted by these "urban heat islands" on a daily basis.

In the 1930s, the federal government created maps of hundreds of cities, rating the riskiness of different neighborhoods for real estate investment by grading them "best," "still desirable," "declining" or "hazardous." Race played a defining role: Black and immigrant neighborhoods were typically rated "hazardous" and outlined in red, denoting a perilous place to lend money. For decades, people in redlined areas were denied access to federally backed mortgages and other credit, fueling a cycle of disinvestment.

In 2016, these old redlining maps were digitized by historians at the University of Richmond. Researchers comparing them to today's cities have spotted striking patterns.

Across more than 100 cities, a recent study found, formerly redlined neighborhoods are today 5 degrees hotter in summer, on average, than areas once favored for housing loans, with some cities seeing differences as large as 12 degrees. Redlined neighborhoods, which remain lower-income and more likely to have Black or Hispanic residents, consistently have far fewer trees and parks that help cool the air. They also have more paved surfaces, such as asphalt lots or nearby highways, that absorb and radiate heat.

The first time I heard that climate change impacts people of color and low-income people at disproportionately high rates, I did a double take. How could something as true-natural and amoral as climate have such a bigoted impact? As I quickly learned, it's precisely because of things like this—the outgrowth of a century of racist policies, that have continued to mutate over the years in an increasingly dangerous domino chain.

But don't take my word for it. Read the article—which is complete with maps interlaying all these different statistics, as well as visuals into personal lives across the city—to understand the real impact.

How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering [Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich / The New York Times]

Can We Turn Down the Temperature on Urban Heat Islands? [Jim Morrison / Yale 360]

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons