Opinion: In a pandemic, we need green spaces more than ever
Here’s why some neighborhoods don’t have them — and what we can do about it.
As we settle into our new normal — two parents working from home with an active 2-year-old — my family is in a constant search for age-appropriate, socially distant entertainment. The few playgrounds near us are padlocked shut to keep kids off the slides and swings, and each day is a new hunt for opportunities to burn off energy. When my husband and daughter left the house today to get some fresh air, I asked them to bring home sticks for a crafting project. But even after a lengthy walk — at least by 2-year old standards — they came home empty handed. There simply weren’t any sticks to be found.
Our neighborhood stick shortage is connected to a much larger national problem. My beloved hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts, is one of the densest cities in New England with little green space compared with other cities in the state. The sparse tree canopies and extensive pavement in my city have little to do with neighborhood preference and everything to do with a long history of federally backed housing segregation.
In the 1930s, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation created a series of “residential security maps” — redlining maps — designating black and brown communities as too risky for investment and ineligible for newly available federally backed mortgages. Even though redlining was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act in 1968, we are still prying loose its grip today.
Redlining locked in patterns of poverty and disinvestment. It denied mortgages to black families, cementing a racial gap in homeownership and wealth that has persisted into the 21st century. Formerly redlined neighborhoods still have relatively low homeownership rates, home values and credit scores. Our neighborhoods receive fewer services and investments: We get the bus depots and sewage treatment plants; others get the parks and street trees.
Today, our communities are likely to be disproportionately harmed by the health, economic and social costs of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, my neighbors are more vulnerable to climate change. Lacking substantial tree cover and green space, new research shows that formerly redlined neighborhoods are about 2.6 °C (4.7 °F) hotter, on average, than comparable communities. Low-income communities of color are literal hot spots for the urban heat island effect — a deadly impact of climate change. Impermeable surfaces and a lack of green space also make our neighborhoods more vulnerable to flooding, and many of my neighbors may be unable to absorb the costs of these crises.
Today, our communities are likely to be disproportionately harmed by the health, economic and social costs of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pollution sources clustered in our neighborhoods mean poor air quality and soaring rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases, underlying health conditions that increase the severity of COVID-19. And sparse green space will make it harder for us to stay healthy and sane while limited in our activities.
But there is hope. Across the country, community members, activists and organizers are fighting back. They’re drawing attention to the legacies of redlining and pushing policymakers to address the harm caused by these racist policies. In five cities — Denver, Colorado; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Richmond, California; Metro Providence, Rhode Island; and, Richmond, Virginia — residents of formerly redlined neighborhoods are working to make their communities greener, safer and more equitable. Partnering with five local trusts, my organization, Groundwork USA, launched the Climate Safe Neighborhoods Partnership to use data-driven community organizing to make our formerly redlined communities safer from the impacts of extreme heat and flooding — and now coronavirus.
The Climate Safe Neighborhoods Partnership helps educate communities about the relationship between historical redlining practices and current climate risks. We then work with residents to prioritize changes they’d like to see in their communities and build the capacity of community leaders to intervene in municipal budgeting, planning and decision-making.
In New Jersey, for example, seasonal flooding leads to frequent overflows of wastewater from sewers directly into the Elizabeth River, exposing residents to untreated wastewater. Groundwork Elizabeth’s Climate Safe Task Force is working to bring community voices to the county’s plan to design the sewer system. In Colorado, Groundwork Denver is empowering residents to organize and advocate for green-space funding to combat the disproportionately high temperatures and flooding experienced in their neighborhoods. In Virginia, Groundwork RVA is doing door-to-door community education and capacity building so that impacted residents can advocate for green community infrastructure in the city’s Master Planning process.
I want my daughter to grow up with green space to run in and clean air to breathe, under the cooling shade of trees.
The projects are different, but the goals are the same: to empower disinvested neighborhoods to become more resilient to disasters of all kinds, and to make sure that people who live in these neighborhoods are driving that change.
For me, this is personal. I want my daughter to grow up with green space to run in and clean air to breathe, under the cooling shade of trees. I want her to be safe from the heat waves, floods and pandemics of the future. I want her to know that fighting for justice and the safety of others is just as important as fighting for herself.
I know that my neighborhood isn’t barren of sticks by accident, and it isn’t going to get better by accident. As writer James Baldwin once observed, “history is not the past. It is the present.” Racist history makes low-income communities of color more vulnerable to crises — from climate change to COVID-19. Understanding that, we can we address the root causes of the problem and, most importantly, solve it.
Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia. We present them to further discussion around important topics.
Originally published at ensia.com on March 31, 2020.