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How Low-Income, Minority Communities in Boston Face Greater Environmental Discrimination

Boston has long painted itself as a city of socially conscious, revolutionary intellectuals. However, that image has come at the expense of minority groups, with the Boston metropolitan area ranked as the nation’s seventh most racially segregated. Unfortunately, climate change is no exception to that rule of discrimination, affecting minority neighborhoods more severely than white neighborhoods. To categorize this environmental discrimination, the Boston Environment Department, or BED, released a new study assessing the relative temperatures of Boston neighborhoods during times of intense heat.

This report, titled “Boston Heat Resilience Study,” or BHRS, addresses the role of climate change in increasing extreme temperatures, precipitation, sea-level rise, and coastal storms. It describes the health problems further exacerbated by the onset and progression of climate change and addresses how some neighborhoods of Boston, specifically low-income, minority neighborhoods, feel the effects of climate change more directly than wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

The report focused on five areas of Boston—Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, and Roxbury—with distinctive, unique histories, economic statuses, and racial makeups. According to the study, these areas were selected due to “their heat risks and widespread impacts of systemic racism, including environmental injustices and planning histories that have elevated heat exposure and health vulnerabilities.” The study then surveyed the air temperature of these areas in relation to the average temperature of Boston, concluding that minority neighborhoods, specifically Chinatown and Roxbury, experience temperatures that are approximately seven degrees hotter than the Boston average. By comparison, West Roxbury and Franklin Park have temperatures around seven degrees cooler than the Boston average. At night, these minority neighborhoods can remain between six and nine degrees hotter than the city average, eliminating any chance these neighborhoods have to cool down before the next day’s heat. These neighborhoods are called “heat islands.”

These heat islands have more development and higher population density, less foliage and canopy cover, fewer parks, and more pavement than nearby affluent neighborhoods. The lack of green spaces is primarily due to histories of redlining in Boston. Redlining is the process of denying loans, quality education, and adequate public transportation and services to neighborhoods deemed to be “at-risk,” typically neighborhoods with large minority populations. Communities grouped into the “A: Best,” “B: Still Desirable,” “C: Declining,” and “D: Hazardous” categorizations share similar racial and infrastructural makeups, and therefore similar resistance or susceptibility to the adverse effects of climate change.

Areas considered A or B level are 4.2°F cooler during the day than the city median, with over 32% more tree cover. By contrast, areas considered D-level—Chinatown, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan—contain two-thirds of Boston’s Black population, average around 3.3°F hotter during the day, and 1.9°F hotter at night. Additionally, these neighborhoods have 16% less parkland and 7% less tree cover than average. This intense difference of over seven degrees during the day between A-level locations like West Roxbury and C & D-level locations like Roxbury and Chinatown has tangible and extreme health consequences. For example, more children from Roxbury go to the emergency room for asthma than any other neighborhood in Boston. Black neighborhoods like Roxbury (13% of Boston’s impoverished population) and Dorchester (21%) are more likely to be without A/C access than West Roxbury (1.3%), meaning poorer, BIPOC majority areas of Boston are more likely to experience heatstroke and heat exhaustion than their corresponding wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. If environmental destruction continues at its current rate, the projected mortality rate for heat-related deaths could increase by about 50%, with the majority of those deaths coming from low-income, BIPOC-majority areas.

The current progression of climate change will only further the current inequities and environmental injustices present. The BHRS projects that by 2030, there will be between 20 to 40 days of the year where temperatures will reach above 90°F heat, with around five days where temperatures reach above 100°F. Even more grimly, the report projects that by 2070, there will be up to 90 days with temperatures above 90°F. In that same year, there will be up to 33 days, or over an entire month, of days above 100°F. 

The BED has proposed several solutions to try to counteract the history of racist policies and structural inequities causing these environmental injustices. Indoor public spaces, like Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) Cooling Centers, can allow families some respite from the intense heat of the summer months while providing other government-funded social benefits. Some of these benefits include female empowerment programs for girls, family gyms, adult education programs, and summer camps. Additionally, the BED cites libraries as critical infrastructure points for cooling off during heatwaves. The benefits of libraries are innumerable, and merely having access to public libraries and the services those community centers provide can change a community for the better. This is because indoor centers, like libraries and BCYF Cooling Centers, are key to all communities; they are one of few indoor air-conditioned locations open to the public that do not expect their entrants to spend any money, making them incredibly valuable to lower-income communities.

In addition to the indoor solutions, the BED has also proposed outdoor solutions to the debilitating effects of heatwaves. Some of these solutions include increasing the amount of publicly owned and available parkland, encouraging the planting of more foliage, and creating new public pools. These solutions could improve the quality of life for residents and lessen the effects of climate change while also increasing community involvement and education about global warming. Local nonprofit organizations also play a significant role in the suppression of adverse effects of climate change in minority communities. Groups like Speak for the Trees, a group dedicated to increasing the size and health of Boston’s urban canopy in underrepresented or minority communities, and the Boston Food Forest Coalition, an organization that develops vacant lots in minority communities into public parks and food forests, are essential beacons of antiracist community engagement against the historically racist policy of redlining.

Climate change is a universal crisis that affects all members of the Boston community—and yet, as history has proven time and time again, minority communities continue to bear the brunt of climate change’s social cost. By encouraging local organizing for climate justice, supporting NGOs that prioritize climate equitability in minority communities, and establishing local and state-level government programs to correct climate inequities, some of the unjust social cost of climate change suffered by minority neighborhoods could be alleviated. Only through concerted, robust efforts to reverse the effects of structurally racist policies can environmental equity be achieved in  Boston’s minority communities.

 

 

Sources

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“Bringing Tree Equity to Boston.” Speak for the Trees, Boston, 3 May 2021, https://treeboston.org/. 

Cabello, Marcela, and Stuart M Butler. “How Public Libraries Help Build Healthy Communities.” Brookings, Brookings, 30 Mar. 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2017/03/30/how-public-libraries-help-build-healthy-communities/. 

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Guo, Yuming, et al. “Quantifying Excess Deaths Related to Heatwaves under Climate Change Scenarios: A Multicountry Time Series Modelling Study.” PLOS Medicine, Public Library of Science, https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1002629#pmed.1002629.s001. 

“Heat Resilience Study Community Open House #1 Presentation.” Boston Heat Resilience Study, Boston Environment Department, 2021, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1W7EPNw7hL-Ct7SkKXEaTUjmVJmoZuOe6/view. 

“Our Work.” Boston Food Forest Coalition, https://www.bostonfoodforest.org/ourwork. 

Poverty in Boston, Boston Redevelopment Authority/Research Division, Mar. 2014, http://www.bostonplans.org/getattachment/f1ecaf8a-d529-40b6-a9bc-8b4419587b86#:~:text=Boston%27s%20poverty%20rate%2C%20less%20college%20students%2C%20is%2019%25.&text=The%20poverty%20rate%20among%20Boston%27s,are%20in%20poverty%20have%20children.&text=The%20neighborhoods%20with%20the%20lowest,and%20Beacon%20Hill%20(9.8%25).

Steele, Brian. “Boston among most racially segregated U.S. metro cities; Hispanics affected most, report finds.” MassLive, 24 March 2019, https://www.masslive.com/news/boston/2015/08/boston_is_7th_most_racially_se.html.

 

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