How Racist Urban Planning Left Some Neighborhoods to Swelter
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On Monday, we published a visual feature on how decades of racist housing policies across the United States have left communities of color far more vulnerable to rising temperatures.
The story started with a simple question: Why are some neighborhoods so much hotter than others? In cities like Baltimore, Portland and New York, neighborhoods that are lower-income and have more Black or Hispanic residents can be up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in summer, with far fewer trees and more heat-absorbing pavement than whiter, wealthier parts of the same city.
To understand why, researchers have been looking at the history of city planning, including practices like redlining. In the 1930s, the federal government graded different neighborhoods on their suitability for real estate investment. Race was a key factor: Black neighborhoods were typically outlined in red and deemed unsuitable for housing loans and federal aid. Economists have shown that this redlining left a lasting mark on cities, exacerbating segregation and racial wealth inequalities.
There’s also an important climate connection. A recent study by Bev Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, found links between redlining and higher temperatures in modern-day Black neighborhoods in Baltimore, Dallas and Kansas City, Mo. Another study found an even broader pattern: Across more than 100 U.S. cities, formerly redlined neighborhoods were 5 degrees hotter on average today than areas that were not redlined.
We focused our story on Richmond, Va., a city in the midst of a major reckoning with its racist past. We talked to historians about how policies like redlining transformed Black neighborhoods and left them with fewer parks and trees. We visited Richmond and interviewed residents about their experience with rising heat. And we used maps to reveal the links between redlining and higher temperatures.
The story is a stark reminder that global warming won’t affect everyone equally.
Heat waves are more dangerous for people living in older housing units that are harder to cool, for people who live near highways with high levels of pollution, and for those who don’t have ready access to health care or healthy food. As we show, these factors have been deeply influenced by discriminatory housing and planning policies pursued over many decades.
Researchers are still studying how city planning policies have contributed to the unequal effects of heat in U.S. cities. “Redlining was a well-known and well-enforced policy,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University and a co-author of one of the redlining studies. But “as we dig deeper, we’ll likely see many others that are having a direct effect on our ability to cope with rising temperatures.”
“The results remind us,” he said, “that we have a lot more work ahead to undo historically racist planning policies.”
You can find our story here. And please also consider signing up for Race/Related, a weekly newsletter from the Times that explores the countless ways in which race, ethnicity and cultural identities affect our lives.
The (booming) business of customized weather forecasts
Accurate weather forecasts can determine whether a business makes money or loses it: Construction companies can’t operate tall cranes in high wind, movie crews depend on clear skies and golf clubhouses need more booze when it rains.
Some entrepreneurial meteorologists have taken notice, and they’re selling customized forecasting services to companies whose profits hinge on the weather’s increasingly unpredictable extremes.
“You don’t want to leave a $50,000 decision to an app,” said John Homenuk, a meteorologist and one of the founders of Empire Weather, a consulting firm that does private forecasts. “You want to pick up the phone and call someone.”
It’s a big business, and getting bigger. In 2015, researchers at University College London calculated global spending on weather services at more than $56 billion, and the federal government has valued the United States commercial weather industry at about $7 billion. And Mark Wysocki, an atmospheric scientist at Cornell University who is also the New York State climatologist, said the market would only grow as climate change injects more uncertainty into weather models and extreme weather becomes more frequent and costly.
“Everything is related to the weather now,” Mr. Wysocki said.
Trucking companies want hour-by-hour forecasts along routes. Commodity traders want to understand the possible impacts of a hurricane season on Florida citrus yields. Utility providers want to anticipate heat waves and cold snaps that change energy demand.
Empire Weather helps snow-removal services figure out how much salt they’ll need before a storm hits. It also compiles reports on base, slope and peak conditions for ski lodges. Its meteorologists warn construction managers when winds are too strong to safely operate those tall cranes, and advises moviemakers on whether skies will be clear enough for outdoor shoots.
Though private weather forecasters have been around for a while (AccuWeather was founded in 1962), climate change has only recently given the business a big boost.
“When I first started, there weren’t that many private weather companies,” said Elizabeth Austin, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Nevada in Reno who founded her consulting company, WeatherExtreme, in 1994. Today, Dr. Austin said, she no longer has to persuade potential clients that hiring a weather consultant could inform better business decisions.
“We don’t need to hunt them anymore,” she said. “They’re starting to think ahead of the curve.”
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Last week’s newsletter, relying on information from the Global Footprint Network, stated incorrectly the month when Earth Overshoot Day arrived in 2006. While the group’s initial analysis showed the date to be in October, revised calculations under refined methodology placed it in September. Similarly, it is not true that Overshoot Day has arrived earlier every year from 2006 to 2019. It has arrived earlier most years.