Urban neighborhoods remarked by federal officials in the 1930s tended to have more harmful air pollution eight decades later, a new study has found, adding to a body of evidence revealing how racist policies have contributed in the past. to inequalities around the world. United States today.
In the wake of the Great Depression, when the federal government assessed neighborhoods in hundreds of cities for real estate investment, black and immigrant areas were typically outlined in red on maps to indicate risky places to borrow. Racial discrimination in housing was banned in 1968. But the red lines of the cards created deeply entrenched discriminatory practices whose effects reverberate nearly a century later.
To this day, historic red-lined neighborhoods are more likely to have many black, Latino, and Asian residents than areas that were rated favorably at the time.
The East Bay in California is a clear example.
The red-lined neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland are on lower ground, closer to industry, and intersected by major highways. People in those areas experience levels of nitrogen dioxide that are twice as high as in the areas federal surveyors labeled “best” or most favored for investment in the 1930s, according to the new pollution study.
Margaret Gordon has decades of experience dealing with these inequalities in West Oakland, a historically defined neighborhood. Many children there suffer from asthma as a result of traffic and industrial pollution. Residents have long struggled to fend off development projects that make the air worse.
“Those people don’t have the voting capacity, or the elected officials, or the money to hire the lawyers to fight this,” said Ms. Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, an advocacy group.
The lead author of the new study, Haley M. Lane, said she was surprised to find that the differences in exposure to air pollution between red-lined and better-rated districts were even greater than the well-documented differences in exposure between people of color and white Americans.
“At the same time, there are so many other effects that cause these inequalities, and these redline demarcations are just one,” said Ms. Lane, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
Researchers have uncovered all kinds of patterns since scientists digitized a large collection of red-lined maps in 2016.
With less green space and more paved surfaces to absorb and radiate heat, historic red-lined neighborhoods are on average 5 degrees warmer than other areas in summer. A 2019 study of eight California cities found that residents of neighborhoods with red lines were twice as likely to visit emergency rooms for asthma.
The latest study, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, looked at neighborhoods in 202 cities and their exposure to two pollutants that are harmful to human health: nitrogen dioxide, a gas associated with vehicle exhaust, industrial facilities and other resources; and the dangerous microscopic particles known as PM 2.5. The study was funded in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Joshua S. Apte, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley who worked on the study, said he had assumed the differences between neighborhoods in certain regions, such as the South, would be greater. Instead, the patterns he and his colleagues found were remarkably consistent across the country.
“This history of racial planning is so deeply ingrained in American cities, basically from every stripe, anywhere,” said Dr. apt. “We’ve been looking for this regional story, and it’s not there.”
The surveyors hired by the government in the 1930s gave each neighborhood one of four letter numbers, from most desirable to least desirable. And the new study found that “D” neighborhoods, the least desirable, tend to be more exposed to dirty air decades later, with more of their residents living near highways, railroads and industrial pollution sources.
In part, this is because some areas rated “C” or “D” were already home to heavy industry and other sources of pollution in the 1930s. Over time, a lack of investment in these neighborhoods also made them attractive for new polluting projects, such as highways, which required cheap land.
A limitation of the study is that it only looks at demographic and pollution information from 2010 onwards. When the researchers began their analysis, information from the 2020 census was still being collected, they said. They ran their analysis again using pollution data from 2015 and found consistent trends.
Air pollution has generally declined in the United States since 2010, although other research suggests that racial and income disparities in exposure persist.
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Air pollution and redlining. A new study shows how urban neighborhoods remarked by federal officials in the 1930s tended to have more harmful air pollution eight decades later, revealing how racist policies contributed to enduring inequalities in the United States.
The racial makeup of some cities has also changed over the past decade due to gentrification and other factors, and more research needs to be done to determine how this affected pollution inequalities, said Rachel Morello-Frosch, an environmental researcher. health scientist at Berkeley who contributed to the study.
Given that some cities have grown since the 1930s, the neighborhoods in the red lines only comprise part of the current population. Still, the differences in Americans’ exposure to air pollution in those cities are often not difficult to spot.
Leticia Gutierrez, director of government relations and community outreach at Air Alliance Houston, an environmental group, said concrete plants are often built in the city’s minority neighborhoods because developers believe people there are less likely to object.
Language barriers prevent some residents from participating in public hearings. Only recently have state authorities started publishing more information in Spanish and Vietnamese, Ms Gutierrez said.
When Ms. Gutierrez wants to take her kids to the park, she moves from her home on the East Side of Houston to the other side of town, a gritty Spanish village.
“It just feels like every time you want to have a picnic or be outside, especially on a nice day, it just doesn’t smell right,” she said. “And you go to the West Side, and you’re like, ‘OK, I can breathe here.'”