OnEarth’s new cover story dives deep into what author Jeff Turrentine characterizes as the three “sins” that debased the American Eden -- that would be Los Angeles -- during its rapid growth throughout the 20th century: sprawl, traffic, and ill-gotten water. There’s a fourth sin that Turrentine could easily have included alongside that unholy trinity: segregation. And like the others, segregation is continuing to impose an environmental toll on the city’s residents, one that will only get worse under the harsh glare of global warming.
For the first half of the 20th century, racial covenants -- contractual agreements between property owners that restricted them from selling their properties to minorities -- effectively barred non-Caucasians from many of L.A.’s rapidly growing suburbs. Though they were ruled unconstitutional by a 1948 Supreme Court decision, the patterns established by these covenants in Los Angeles and many other cities determined the way that residential neighborhoods developed all over the country. A century later, that legacy of racial division persists, and ensures that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
That’s because high-density cities, in all their concrete majesty, amplify heat waves. Researchers at Columbia University recently estimated that New York City can expect an alarming spike in deaths due to hotter weather. Their study, which appeared in Nature Climate Change, projected that heat-related deaths in Manhattan will climb by up to 20 percent by the 2020s. That’s approximately 80 additional deaths each year over a 1980s baseline of 369. Some of those deaths will be offset by the fewer deaths that occur during milder winters, but that hardly seems like an acceptable trade.
Those heat-wave-related deaths are likely to be concentrated in neighborhoods that lack sufficient tree cover and heat-absorbing surfaces, such as asphalt and sidewalks -- neighborhoods that are primarily home to the poor and to racial minorities. A study released last month in Environmental Health Perspectives found that black people nationwide are 52 percent more likely than whites to live in areas of heat risk. Asians are 32 percent more likely, and Latinos are 21 percent more likely.
“What we’re seeing in the physical environment does reflect a social environment that disadvantages people of color specifically,” said environmental scientist Bill Jesdale, the lead author of the tree canopy study. “The way cities grow -- where people move and where people can afford to move -- tends to reflect the racially hierarchical nature of our society.”
Jesdale, who is based at the University of California, Berkeley, said that suburban wedges radiating out from urban centers historically had more resources to commit to providing shade. Community infrastructure projects such as parks depended on investment from middle class whites, who flooded suburbia throughout the 20th century in search of their own piece of Eden.
Although trees may seem like an overly simplistic fix to a much deeper problem (it is global climate change, after all), they make a significant difference to the temperatures that people experience on the street and in adjacent homes and buildings. And if the tree canopy can be expanded, there’s something in it for everyone, regardless of ethnic background. Whites also suffer when communities are segregated and lack tree cover, researchers discovered; in fact, whites were found to be 34 percent more vulnerable to heat risk when the city they lived in was highly segregated.
As with the other sins that Turrentine has documented, Los Angeles is now working to atone for some of them relating to its formally segregated past. The Million Trees LA initiative, which supplies up to seven trees for residents to plant around schools and other areas that lack canopy, was launched by outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2006. The project is one of many similar efforts across the country, in cities including New York, Houston, and Denver. So far, in L.A., more than 400,000 trees have been planted by participants who are helping to fight the impacts of climate change, one patch of shade at a time.
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