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Racist Housing Policies Have Created Dangerous 'Heat Islands' in Cities

On any given day east Portland is 18 F hotter than the city's west side. Coronavirus orders will make it even harder to escape.

by Elise Herron
Apr 22 2020, 6:50pm

Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland's east side. Many of Portland's 'heat islands' are on the east side of the river. Photo by Dan Sherwood/Getty Images

Ashton Simpson knows all too well that extreme heat isn’t just a nuisance—for people of color in Portland, Oregon, it can be deadly.

Simpson lives in outer east Portland, and works as a community asset planner at the nonprofit Rosewood Initiative, a non-profit focused on community development and connecting residents with resources. On any given day, the area is roughly 18 F hotter than the west side of the city.

During heat waves, Simpson says east Portland’s sea of asphalt parking lots and forest of brick and concrete buildings become “suffocating hellscapes.”

“You’ve got heat radiating from the street, heat radiating from the sidewalks, heat radiating from the tops of roofs, heat radiating from the parking lots, heat radiating from cars,” he said. “And if you are ill-prepared and have a heat stroke and you're a person of color...it’s clear that most of us are not ready for that.”

In the Rosewood area, the minority population is twice the city average and poverty rates are around 16 percent higher than other Portland neighborhoods.

“If (Simpson) was passed out on the sidewalk by himself the chances of somebody who's not African American stopping and helping him is significantly lower than if it's a white woman or some white senior citizen,” Kem Marks, Simpson’s colleague and Rosewood Initiative’s director of transportation equity, said. “People are going to make an assumption about why he's lying on the sidewalk.”

For people of color who are senior citizens or who have preexisting health conditions such as asthma, the effects of extreme heat can compound. Add social isolation in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic and the risks of living in heat islands are even more heightened.

As global temperatures rise, heat waves become more frequent and intense, and communities of color are at the front line of the crisis. A recent study from Portland State University shows that historically redlined neighborhoods like Rosewood experience significantly higher temperatures than their non-redlined counterparts.

Redlining—a 20th century practice in which banks, lenders and real estate agents refused to approve loans or mortgages to communities that the federal government deemed “risky”—annexed communities of color in certain neighborhoods. Though the racist practice was banned under the Fair Housing Act of 1986, its legacy persists in continued segregation, disinvestment in transportation and infrastructure, diminished air quality and proximity to industrial pollution, and economic inequalities, among other things.

The structural inequities that enabled redlining also amplify the effects of the coronavirus among communities of color. For people living in heat islands, shelter-in-place orders could prohibit people from accessing cooling shelters or from getting aid from neighbors and support networks.

“If you're not going outside and you don't have air conditioning, you are going to be exposed to temperatures that are much warmer than immediately outside of your home,” said Vivek Shandas, urban studies and planning professor at PSU and co-author of the study. “Those communities face some pretty catastrophic outcomes if we have a heatwave come through during this stay-at-home order.”

Vivek Shandas
A study led by PSU professor Vivek Shandas, pictured, found that historically redlined neighborhoods experience significantly higher temperatures than their non-redlined counterparts. Photo courtesy of PSU

By overlapping satellite-derived temperature readings with maps of historic redlining in 108 U.S. cities, researchers at PSU and the Science Museum of Virginia found that legacy racist policies place communities of color in hotter neighborhoods almost across the board, with an average difference of 5 F. However, Portland is ranked the worst, with a difference of 13 F between redlined and non-redlined regions. Denver and Minneapolis are close behind, with temperature differences of 10-12 F in formerly redlined areas.

“We really need to do some work to undo some of these historical practices,” said Shandas. “There's NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitudes and then there's xenophobia, or the othering of people, that you find all over the world playing out in unique ways in specific places. This study really shows that this is something that has been happening and in many cases is still happening today.”

Vivek and his colleague’s research is the first of its kind to link racist policies that date back over a century with current temperature differences across U.S. cities. It shows what researchers and activists have been describing for years: that environmental degradation unequivocally affects communities of color more severely.

“We live in a society where some people are devalued,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Wright has been studying climate-affected communities in the Gulf Coast and around the U.S. for more than three decades.

“We talk about things getting better, but for people of color, it's actually gotten worse,” she said. “The numbers of minority communities and people of color communities living in polluted areas are increasing rather than decreasing over the years.”

In Portland, the Willamette River, which bisects the city north to south, defines the city’s temperature and socioeconomic status.

“You could almost call the Willamette River, like many cities have, a socioeconomic divide,” Shandas said. “The way the west side has been built and the landscapes are very different than the east side.”

Many of the city’s hot spots or “heat islands” are located on the east side of the river. That’s because it has larger highways and parking lots that bake in the summer and building complexes made of brick and concrete—and far fewer trees and forested areas—than the west side.

“Trees leaves will absorb heat and some of the water that's in the tree itself will be evaporated, creating an increase in relative humidity and potentially cooling that immediately surrounding space,” Shandas said. “Whereas other, more dense materials—like asphalt, concrete, cinder block or even brick—will absorb that heat and hold on to it. Even after the sun goes down, they retain the heat and continue to amplify temperatures locally.”

In Portland, decades of developmental code have allowed for multi-development complexes to cover whole lots with no provisions for green space. Only recently, after extensive efforts from community organizations and researchers, has the city amended the policy to require at least 15 percent green or outdoor space in multi-family residential lot developments.

“Such reversals of policy are the forms of planning that can help to reverse decades of amplifying temperatures in areas that have historically been underserved,” Vivek’s study said.

To spot Portland's wealthy areas, look no further than tree coverage

Anjeanette Brown, a recently appointed member of Portland’s Urban Forestry Commission, is one of the community organizers working for years to make east Portland greener. She said that to spot the city’s wealthy areas, look no further than tree coverage.

“If you take an aerial view of Portland you can clearly see where people who have money live,” she said. “We are in the top 10 best urban forest cities. To even think that there are neighborhoods that have inadequate amounts of tree coverage that allow for heat islands to exist is inexcusable.”

Brown and other community groups are prioritizing tree planting in efforts to mitigate the effects of heat islands in Portland. Local nonprofit Friends of Trees plans to plant hundreds of trees in east Portland in efforts to increase the area’s canopy coverage—which is currently only 21 percent, far less than the west side’s 52 percent.

But many argue that tree planting alone is not enough, and the issue of heat islands requires more systemic policy and zoning changes.

Duncan Hwang, associate director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, said more of the onus of mitigating environmental racism should lie on politicians and policymakers.

“At the core of environmental justice we want to make sure the benefits and burdens of environmental changes are equitably distributed. That's not happening,” Hwang said. “Partially it's a matter of representation. East Portland is neglected because there's a sense that communities here aren't as civically engaged, so it's less likely that politicians have to listen or face consequences for ignoring east Portland.”

Wright also says that policymakers need to act fast. But she says the urgency of climate change will soon become undeniable, even for the nation’s most privileged.

“The thing about climate change is, in the end it affects all of us,” she said. “The more white people that are affected, the sooner we get to a place where people care about it. People don’t care about it when it does not affect them, but there’s no running from climate change.”

Elise Herron is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter.

VICE is committed to ongoing coverage of the global climate crisis. Read all of our Earth Day 2020 coverage here, and more of our climate change coverage here.

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