Hotcity
Shutterstock

As if climate change weren’t enough of a huge jerk, now we find out that it’s racist, too — or at least it’s following America’s lead.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives digs deep under the sidewalks and streets that are soaking up all this new heat in our cities — and finds that not all neighborhoods and racial groups are faring equally. According to the research, blacks, Asians, and Latinos are all significantly more likely to live in high-risk heat-island conditions than white people.

At first glance, this seems to make some sense: Due to a long history of racist policies and lending practices, people of color are more likely than whites to live in poor neighborhoods. Neighborhood infrastructure in poor areas is mostly made of concrete and asphalt (with some soil here and there, often tinged with heavy metals). Those “impervious surfaces” conduct heat like crazy, and turn these areas into “heat islands” surrounded by their richer, greener neighbors.

Dense tree cover in urban areas can improve local health factors and has even been associated with a decrease in crime in some cities. But cities don’t tend to invest in trees for poor neighborhoods, where residents without their own private green space aren’t in a position to invest for themselves.

But this study found something entirely new: The heat-island effect and lack of neighborhood trees is more closely correlated with race than it is with class.

Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Susie Cagle

The authors, a team of researchers from UC Berkeley that includes Grist board member Rachel Morello-Frosch, say this is the first study of its kind. They compared Census population data with the 2001 National Land Cover Dataset, mediating for factors such as income, home ownership, and density. Richer folks of color who own their homes are less likely to live in a heat island than the poor, but still significantly more likely than whites. The study doesn’t point to causality, but does mention past and present lending practices which have concentrated people of color in dense, urban neighborhoods that may or may not receive the same level of civic investment as other areas.

Translation: This study highlights the persistent racial segregation of urban areas more than it does a lack of trees. All told, this is just yet another amenity that people of color are losing out on. (Yes, trees are a luxury item!) “[S]egregation is crucial to understanding social drivers of environmental health disparities and, more directly, the potentially disproportionate health burdens of climate change on communities of color,” the study reads.

It’s not just a potential discomfort, but a serious health risk, when extreme heat is a factor in about one in five deaths resulting from natural hazards. The authors ultimately recommend that “urban planning to mitigate future extreme heat should proactively incorporate an environmental justice perspective and address racial/ethnic disparities in land cover characteristics.”

So yeah, cool, more trees! But these neighborhoods don’t just need a few new saplings on the block — they need a more direct challenge to the residual effects of modern residential redlining. Ultimately any significant change for these private urban heat islands will require a combination of environmental justice and social justice.

And probably some clean soil for those new root systems.