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Race, Climate, and the Urban Heat Island


As climate change speeds up, nonwhite inner city neighborhoods will face a high risk of extreme heat. 

When it comes to fighting climate change, nothing beats trees. Not only can trees absorb CO2 emissions, their shady canopies can also combat the urban heat island effect—the tendency for urban areas to be warmer than the surrounding countryside. This happens because human-made structures like concrete buildings and asphalt sidewalks do a great job of trapping heat and preventing cooling. Consequently, neighborhoods with fewer trees face a greater risk of extreme heat and dangerous ozone, not to mention heart disease, respiratory illness, noise pollution, and crime.

This may seem like common sense, but the fact is not everyone lives in a nice shady neighborhood. In fact, if you’re nonwhite, there’s a good chance you don’t. That’s one conclusion from a recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives, reports Susie Cagle for Grist. For generations, blacks, Latinos, and working-class Americans have been kept out of wealthier neighborhoods through discriminatory housing policies. Then as now, those wealthier neighborhoods were likely to have more green space and less concrete. And even though discriminatory practices like redlining were banned in the 1960s, the study points out, housing segregation continues across the country, and in some cases, it’s actually gotten worse.  

What that means is more nonwhite Americans are living in areas ill-equipped to deal with excessive heat. Lacking trees and green spaces, many inner city neighborhoods rely heavily on concrete and asphalt. And as climate change intensifies, the problem will only worsen. Excessive heat already accounts for one in five natural disaster deaths in the U.S. If that number increases due to global warming, victims will likely be disproportionately nonwhite. The solution, say the researchers, is not just more trees but also housing policies that attack the roots of persistent segregation.

Image by Jeffrey Schwartz, licensed under Creative Commons