Writing Catalog

William Pich

Grade: 10

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Scott Boehnen

Red Hot: The Legacy of Redlining in Intraurban Heat

Critical Essay

Red Hot: The Legacy of Redlining in Intraurban Heat

The exaggerated effects of intraurban heat plague numerous urban areas across the United States. For example, Sparkle Veronica Taylor, a mother of two young children, treks two miles to a park in a wealthier neighborhood in pursuit of refuge from the sweltering heat of the Gilpin neighborhood, located in Richmond, Virginia (Plumer and Popovich). Gilpin is among the thousands of areas affected by intraurban heat, a problem caused by the historical practice of racist redlining. Originating in the late 1930s, the term "redlining" was first introduced as the federal government began grading hundreds of neighborhoods for real estate investment. The black and immigrant neighborhoods, like Ms. Taylor's, were originally outlined in red, thus indicating the area's risky nature and discouraging investors from issuing mortgages within the red-colored areas (Gross). The federal government ranked the neighborhoods from least risky to most risky through the letters A through D. D graded areas were determined as the places where property values were most likely to go down and thus marked in red— a "sign that these neighborhoods were not worthy of inclusion in homeownership and lending programs"; conversely, A graded areas were marked in green to indicate that those areas were worthy of investment. Indeed, D-graded areas largely consisted of the African American population while the A-graded areas were filled with an abundance of white homeowners, a sign of the underlying racism of the redlining program. Long-term disinvestment left redlined neighborhoods deprived of public amenities, including natural shade, and instead filled with numerous heat-trapping buildings and roads, inevitably increasing summertime temperatures in these areas. Therefore, areas like Gilpin may experience temperatures 15 degrees higher than whiter parts of town (Plumer and Popovich). As Ms. Taylor puts it, "The heat gets really intense, I'm just zapped of energy by the end of the day… But once we get to that park, I'm struck by how green the space is. I feel calmer, and better able to breathe. Walking through different neighborhoods, there's a stark difference between places that have lots of greenery and places that don't" (Taylor quoted in Plumer and Popovich). Consequently, the increase in temperature produces harmful effects on the human body, with illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and hyperthermia all at increased risk under extreme heat ("Temperature-related Death and Illness"). Similar to Gilpin, the intraurban heat epidemic reigns dominant across the many urban areas of Cleveland as well, with temperatures of the historically redlined areas reporting a significant increase in average temperature (Hoffman). However, steps can be taken to mitigate the problem of intraurban heat, such as the planting of green vegetation and the investment in public amenities that provide natural coolants such as shade—all of which require citizens' knowledge and political backing.

Cleveland's intraurban heat epidemic stems from both historical and environmental practices, most notably the redlining of poorer neighborhoods inhabited predominantly by minority citizens. Because redlining aimed to categorize neighborhoods by creditworthiness but in fact categorized them by poverty and race, those neighborhoods lost both political power and economic investment, including the public amenities, such as parks and tree canopies, that come with power and wealth. Unlike predominantly African American neighborhoods, white homeowners "had more clout to lobby city governments for tree-lined sidewalks and parks" while landlords rarely invested in green space within African American areas (Plumer and Popovich). Consequently, historically redlined areas now have less tree cover than unmarked areas (Plumer and Popovich). With a lack of refuge from the sweltering Cleveland heat and a high density of heat-trapping concrete buildings and asphalt roads, urban neighborhoods simply retain more heat: according to a Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) map, on average, the historically redlined areas of Cleveland receive a 1.32 increase in average temperature as opposed to a 1.22 decrease in average temperature within unmarked areas (Hoffman). However small, the slight variations in the temperature contain harmful effects on the human body. As authors Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich explain in the article "How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering," "during a heat wave, every one-degree increase in temperature can increase the risk of dying by 2.5 percent. Higher temperatures can strain the heart and make breathing more difficult, increasing hospitalization rates for cardiac arrest and respiratory diseases like asthma" (Plumer and Popovich). The problem of an increased temperature stems from the historical policies of redlining but continues to exert its sometimes deadly effects to the present day.

The roots of intraurban heat can be further examined through the comparison of two areas within Cleveland, specifically between a historically redlined area and a historically greenlined area. During the 1930s, this red-marked area was characterized by its "heavy relief rolls, high disease, and mortality rate, crime, and unemployment" ("The Digital Scholarship Lab"). More importantly, it was described as the area containing the highest concentrated African American population in the entire city and further noted as the most undesirable area in the entire city. Moreover, the area is heavily industrialized and polluted as it includes the city's largest warehousing and trucking facilities. The greenlined area, however, was described as "a well-planned and a very desirable residential section. It is one of the newer allotments and presently expanding very rapidly… in view of the favorable future outlook, the area is accorded a strong first-grade rating" ("The Digital Scholarship Lab"). Of course, the area was heavily populated by white residents and homeowners. The greenlined area clearly received adequate investment and was thus provided with green infrastructures such as parks and tree canopies. The redlined area, however, was least desirable due to its lack of investment, thus making the area desirable only for industrial factories and prompting an increase in pollution.

Cleveland's intraurban heat epidemic is further exacerbated as the number of hot days increases due to the effects of global warming. To date, climate change has led to a rise of 1.8° F (1° C) in average global temperature, a small but significant number as the slight increase prompts a higher number of extremely hot days and record high temperatures—especially in the United States (Eltahir). As explained in the article "How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?", a model portraying the number of hot days relative to the historical timeline, the number of hot days is guaranteed to increase over time: "Back then (1960), the Cleveland, Ohio area could expect about 2 days per year to reach at least 90 degrees… Today, the Cleveland, Ohio area can expect 4 days… By the end of the century, the model shows that there could be 14 of these hot days" (Popovich, et al.). With an increase in the number of hot days, the historically redlined urban population is simply left vulnerable to the extremities of intra-urban heat, including the health effects of high rates of asthma, diabetes, and elevated blood pressure (Plumer and Popovich). Historically greenlined neighborhoods are least affected by the national rise in temperature. These neighborhoods received proper investment in greenery and public amenities, providing refuge from the heat and raising property value, causing them to end up with less heat-absorbing buildings and less polluting factories. Racism itself plays a paramount role in Cleveland's intraurban heat problem as it determines those who are required to deal with the exaggerated effects of intraurban heat and suffer its worst effects.

Many argue that the Civil Rights act of 1968 deemed redlining illegal and thus solved the effects of redlining as a whole. However, the law does not change Cleveland's past, nor does it address the continuing effects on human health and the well-being of historical racism. The effects of racist redlining practices, including the persistence of intraurban heat, remain prominent within the city of Cleveland. Nevertheless, the effects of intraurban heat within Cleveland can be mitigated. Indeed, the most obvious way to combat intraurban heat is through expanding green vegetation in urban areas. According to the article "Using Trees and Vegetation to Reduce Heat Islands," "Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20-45°F (11-25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials" ("Using Trees and Vegetation"). Implementing additional trees within urban areas would further increase shade cover, providing refuge from extremities of increased heat. Additionally, trees and shrubs improve air quality in a city by concentrating and absorbing pollutants, thus cleansing the air and producing a better environment overall ("Using Trees and Vegetation"). In fact, this solution has already begun to take place within the city of Cleveland. Neighborhood tree groups have attempted to mitigate intraurban heat islands by planting tree canopies throughout the greater Cleveland area. Many non-profits across Cleveland have additionally supported the noble cause through funding and tree restoration; for example, in the article "Cleveland is losing trees; health and environmental advocates call for planting," reporter Marc Lefkowitz writes, "Since 2015, the nonprofit Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC) has distributed 15,000 trees and seedlings in Greater Cleveland through its Tree Steward program" (Lefkowitz). However, we must seek action on a larger scale.

An increase in public amenities simply requires reinvestment within urban communities, an act that desperately requires the full attention of local governments. Voluntary efforts, including demonstration projects, urban forestry programs, and outreach and education programs, are both small-scale and less effective without the help of a local government ("What Communities are Doing to Reduce Heat Islands"). Therefore, it is imperative for urban communities to advocate for change and draw attention to this problem, ultimately influencing local governments to support the cause. Local government could pursue a number of mitigation strategies, including "procurement, resolutions, tree and landscape ordinances, comprehensive plans and design guidelines, zoning codes, green building programs and standards, building codes, and air quality requirements" ("What Communities are Doing to Reduce Heat Islands").

The many urban areas that populate Cleveland currently experience a significant temperature increase compared to the historically greenlined areas. The continuing increase in heat is one effect of racist housing policies from the 1930s, which has ultimately stripped colored communities from investment in housing areas and public amenities. Consequently, redlined areas lack green vegetation due to the absence of investments and renovations, causing an increase in heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt. The issue of intraurban heat not only affects people in terms of simply comfort but is also directly related to respiratory diseases such as asthma and heat stroke. However, steps can be taken to mitigate intraurban heat, including an increase in green vegetation and public amenities as well as the communal advocation for change. It is imperative that we address the issue of intraurban heat early as the problem intensifies in the oncoming years. Global warming continues to detrimentally affect society through constant temperature increases, and without mitigating this problem, urban families, like that of Ms. Taylor, are left vulnerable to the extremities of intraurban heat. Intraurban heat not only affects the city of Cleveland but also the United States as a whole. The problem is not trivial. Both local communities and their government must act immediately to alleviate the intraurban heat issue. Owning tree canopy has been made an inequality due to the racist policies of redlining, and it is our society's responsibility to replenish redlined neighborhoods with their basic needs in order to provide them with refuge from the harmful effects of extreme heat.