Climate Change, Health, and Structural Racism
Recent record-breaking heat waves have drawn attention to the impacts of climate change on health and well being. These heat waves have proven especially dangerous in parts of the country that have not historically relied on air conditioning, resulting in emergency actions that ranged from the creation of temporary cooling shelters to school cancellations. Heat is already the leading cause of weather-related deaths and climate change is increasing the severity of the urban heat island (UHI) effect.
These heat waves also elevated the scholarship that illustrates how racist land use practices, such as redlining, have created differential health effects (see also this EPA Environmental Justice webinar on Redlining and Climate Crisis). Historically redlined neighborhoods, deemed unsafe for investment by banks because they were inhabited by people of color, have been found to have significantly higher temperatures than non-redlined neighborhoods. The higher temperatures are a function of high amounts of impervious surfaces, fewer street trees, and inadequate park access. Park-deficient neighborhoods do not benefit from the cooling effects that park vegetation brings. It also means there are fewer places to retreat from the heat, which is particularly poignant when residents do not have air conditioning. Greenspace access is also important for healthy birth outcomes. Less tree canopy coverage has been found to be associated with preterm births among Black women.
While the UHI has recently captured the public’s attention, the particular hazards resulting from the interaction of climate change and racist planning policy may differ depending on the region of the country and the location of formerly redlined neighborhoods (explore the climate change hazards of your region here and here). For example, Sacramento’s formerly redlined (“hazard”) and yellowlined (“declining”) neighborhoods face high flood risk.
Air quality is another area with differential exposure and health effects. We now know that fossil fuel air pollution is more deadly than previously realized. The Fourth National Climate Assessment outlines the climate-induced risks of increased ground-level ozone and particulate matter, with respiratory and cardiovascular effects including premature deaths, hospital and emergency room visits, aggravated asthma, and shortness of breath.
Tools and Solutions
For resources on climate change mitigation and adaption, look at the C40 Cities site for suggestions. Streetsmart’s page on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) also has transportation-specific resources, including a list of proven strategies for reducing GHG.
Trees are a critical strategy for improving urban health (increased shade, UHI reduction, reduced housing energy costs, air filtration, stormwater absorption, reduced mental stress, etc.) To help identify where trees should be planted to achieve greater heat equity, use the Tree Equity Score tool created by American Forests. A simple but elegant solution for increasing street tree canopy builds on the oft-lauded 10-minute walk to essential destinations (aka 15-minute city):
“All Charlotte households will have access to essential amenities, goods, and services within a comfortable, tree-shaded 10-minute walk, bike, or transit trip by 2040” (Charlotte’s newly adopted comprehensive plan, Streetsmart emphasis).
One possible solution for reducing air pollution and increasing public space is the Barcelona superblock. In addition to journal articles on this model, the Barcelona Institute for Global Health created a mini-graphic novel to tell the fictional story of how the Barcelona Superblock came to be, inserting air pollution’s health effects (“one third of childhood asthma cases are caused by air pollution”) into the story.