Systemic Redlining & Utilizing The Three Dimensions of Environmental Justice

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By: Isabel Maternowski, Community Organizing Intern
In the 1930s the federal government redlined black neighborhoods across the United States. A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America: NPR.  These neighborhoods were labeled as “hazardous” and “risky” investments.  People living in these areas were denied access to federally supported mortgages, bank loans, and other forms of credit.  This perpetuated a cycle of disinvestment and abuse has negatively impacted communities of color, to this day.  Richmond, Virginia is one example of the hundreds of American cities suffering from the legacy of Redlining.  How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
Almost one hundred years later, these Redlined districts now represent the “heat islands” within the city of Richmond, especially in the summer.  What are Heat Islands?  “Heat islands” have very few trees and an abundance of heat-absorbing concrete.  Redlined neighborhoods are an average of five degrees hotter than non-Redlined neighborhoods. Studies Find Redlining Linked To More Heat, Fewer Trees In Cities Nationwide : NPR .  These low-income residential areas generally contain the highest concentrations of Black and Brown residents. Red-lined districts turned “heat islands” are ubiquitous or found everywhere across the United States while the predominantly White neighborhoods have a bounty of trees and parks that keep the residents happy, healthy and much cooler in the summer.  Unfortunately, our country’s toxic environmental history of systemic abuse of people of color extends to all areas for individuals living in these “heat islands”. 
As we have seen and are currently seeing, the health impacts of high temperatures are very serious.  In Richmond, Virginia more than 2,000 Black residents are living in low-income public housing without air conditioning.  These ZIP codes have the highest rates of heat related ambulance calls in the city. Despite all of the resistance from cities to change, there is however, a slow push, that can be noted in Richmond’s environmental justice movement, to assist these residents.  We now can look at Richmond’s initiatives and how it has utilized the three dimensions of environmental justice to better understand how the legacy of Redlining can begin to be dismantled.  
The first dimension of Environmental Justice is Procedural Justice which relates to the idea of fairness, public inclusivity on decision making, and equal allocation of resources.  Procedural Justice is being facilitated by officials in Richmond’s Sustainability Office.  This office is currently engaged in an “intensive listening process” with neighbors. They want to hear the concerns of the people as they work to create a climate action and resilience plan with racial equity at its core.  It is critical to include the people most affected in the process of change. This strategy should be implemented at all levels of government across the nation. The study “Equity, environmental justice and sustainability: incomplete approaches in climate change politics” by Jekwu Ikeme describes the dimensions of environmental justice more thoroughly. 
 Distributive Justice aims to provide equal protection and equal access. In Richmond, a new mapping tool has been released that shows how the heat and flooding disproportionately impact communities of color. The City of Richmond also has announced a goal that ensures everyone within the city limits has only a ten-minute walking distance to a park from where they live. The city is also working with the Science Museum of Virginia and community partners to identify the most vulnerable areas that can be converted into green space.  
The city EJ movement concludes with Corrective Justice initiatives, which address previous harms and structures that are contributing factors to ongoing inequalities, with a long-term master plan which was drafted in June 2020.  The plan calls for an increase in tree canopies (parts of a city that are shaded by trees), redesigning buildings to improve airflow, reduction in the number of paved lots, and using a light color pavement, which would reflect back the sunlight that hits it. This is the city’s first large-scale “greening project” since the 1970s.  What we are learning is that cities across America can benefit from increased green spaces psychologically, restoratively and environmentally. Green spaces are transformative, as it helps cool down areas, lower electric bills, lower risk of death, filter air pollution, and reduce stress.
Redlining is a historic and toxic force that not only shaped some American cities but continues to put lives in danger.  The long-term impacts of Redlining are forms of institutionalized racism.  By looking at the example of Richmond, Virginia, we can begin to see how much of an impact procedural, distributive, and corrective justice can have to start to remediate the blatant inequities that these communities face. By embracing the three dimensions of Environmental Justice, political and social initiatives become powerful forces that can contribute to profound shifts in our society and disrupt the cycles of systemic Environmental Injustice. 
Photo Credit: Nelson, Winling, Marciano, Connolly, et al./Mapping Inequality

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