Decades of racist urban policy in the U.S. have left some minority neighborhoods dramatically hotter than wealthier, whiter parts of the same city. Natasha Frost, on the Briefings team, talked to Nadja Popovich, a graphics reporter on the Climate desk, about redlining and urban heat disparities.
What brought you to this idea initially?
There’s this idea of the “urban heat island” effect, which we traditionally think of as cities being much hotter than the surrounding countryside. But actually, there’s a really unequal urban heatscape within cities, which poses a pretty huge problem for people’s health. We reported on this last year, but we didn’t get deep into the reasons that the disparity exists.
Now, some new research has started to unravel how historical housing and other urban planning policies that were often quite explicitly racist helped create the urban heat environment in cities across the U.S. We ended up focusing specifically on Richmond, because we found it to be a really compelling example of some of these practices.
Were residents aware of these disparities?
One woman we spoke to told us that she walks her two boys a mile and a half to a cooler, leafier park in a wealthier part of town instead of letting them play out in the glaring sun at the local playground. Others are definitely not as aware. When you get your local weather, you get one number for the whole city — not these really local pictures of what the temperature is in different parts of the city.
How did you approach the challenge of capturing heat visually?
Visualizing heat is a unique challenge, especially for photography. For this piece, we wanted to lead it with maps that use satellite data to show heat disparity. We then overlaid them with historical redlining maps to show people how these government-imposed policies overlap, quite literally, with the urban heatscape today.
We also worked with a really great photographer, Brian Palmer, who’s actually based in Richmond, Va., to show the human side of the story. He took amazing, beautiful photos, both of families we had spoken to who are impacted by the heat, and also of the difference in neighborhoods, to show people what abundant tree canopy cover looks like in the cooler neighborhoods, and also what having so much pavement in a neighborhood and no shade really looks like.
That’s it for today’s briefing. Until next time.
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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