A woman steps off an air-conditioned bus into the blistering summer weather of Richmond, VA. Beads of sweat immediately fill the creases of her brow, furrowed in confusion, as she realizes that it feels substantially hotter outside than when she left work only fifteen minutes before. How had the temperature risen so much in just the span of a short bus ride across town? The answer transcends climate change and reaches deep into some of our nation’s most troublesome history.
Certain neighborhoods in Richmond are, on average, 10-15 degrees hotter than others at the same time of day. Those certain, hotter, neighborhoods all have something in common: redlining. A prime example of the far-reaching and devastating effects of systemic racism, the dated practice of redlining has caused parts of cities all across the United States to experience negative environmental impacts that historically white, wealthy, areas do not. In the 1930’s, New Deal programs tasked with increasing homeownership led to the labeling of Black and immigrant neighborhoods as hazardous financial risks. Encouraging disinvestment in communities of color had many disastrous outcomes, many of which have been popular focuses of social justice activism. However, the environmental impacts of redlining managed to fly under the radar and didn’t gain the same traction as some of the more obvious manifestations of housing segregation for many years.
The University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality project was published in 2016, bringing to light the nationwide phenomenon of formerly redlined neighborhoods with hotter temperatures. It showcases an archive of the hundreds of U.S. city maps that were used for neighborhood risk assessments and the implementation of redlining. Lack of access to federally-backed mortgages and barriers to homeownership in “hazardous risk areas”—both direct effects of redlining—stunted the development of parks and green spaces in many communities of color. Not only do these green areas provide shade and prevent sunlight from reaching the ground, but they absorb much less solar radiation than developed surfaces. Greenhouse gases aren’t the only heat-trapping forces we need to worry about. Paved areas, from asphalt to concrete, are warming surface temperatures as well.
After slowly burning for years, these neighborhoods are now feeling the searing effects of urban heat. The term redlining turned out to be quite fitting. To this day, it shows its true, red-hot colors in yet another form of inequality in historically Black and immigrant communities across the United States.
To hear more about redlining and urban heat disparities in Richmond, check out our interview with Jeremy Hoffman from the Science Museum of Virginia: Planned Destruction (May 21, 2021.)
By Aviva Kosto