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How segregation set up Black Americans to bear the heat of climate change

empty city lot with cut down trees

Story at a glance

  • Extreme heat is one of the most deadly effects of climate change, killing more and more people in recent years.
  • Research shows that residents of the hottest urban areas tend to be nonwhite and have limited access to resources.
  • A new study suggests that redlining congregated poor, nonwhite people in neighborhoods who are now suffering the most from extreme heat.

Redlining denied black Americans services and economic resources over the years, segregating them in communities without the means to move out. Now, many are living in the same areas prone to extreme heat as a result of climate change, a new study finds. 

When the National Housing Act of 1934 was passed, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created districts in hundreds of major cities across the U.S. based on their level of “desirability.” Black neighborhoods were considered less desirable at the time, so they were “redlined.” As a result, nearly a century later, many of those neighborhoods remain segregated by both race and economic class.

The study published Jan. 13 found that in 94 percent of 108 American cities studied, formerly redlined neighborhoods have higher surface temperatures than non-redlined areas, with Southeast and Western cities showing the greatest differences in temperature. While the difference could be as much as 44.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the average difference nationally was 36.68 degrees. 

Researchers found one reason for this difference was that these neighborhoods weren’t very green — literally. Because of a lack of investment, the neighborhoods lacked greenery. Natural landscaping can reduce the surface temperature of an area by absorbing the heat from the sun. 

Instead of parks and trees, redlined neighborhoods have pavement and concrete. Redline designations made land in these areas cheaper, so the government chose these areas to build new roads and large building complexes, especially from the 1940s to the 1970s, according to the study. 

Today, black Americans living in concrete neighborhoods are exposed to the danger of extreme heat events, just as they are becoming more common. According to one study, more casualties have resulted from heat waves than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes together. And without the resources to deal with this heat, their problems will worsen. 

“The fact that residents living in formerly redlined areas may face higher financial burdens due to higher energy and more frequent health bills further exacerbates the long-term and historical inequities of present and future climate change,” the study said.