Society of Bioethics and Medicine
Redlining’s Toll on NYC Parks and Heat
Written by Laila Gad
Edited by Samantha Cavusoglu
The Big Apple is getting hotter. This heat brings a new deadly foe to New York City– and it’s disproportionately targeting Black New Yorkers.
New York City is one of 71 counties in America that have seen a 2°C degree increase in average temperatures since the 1800s. Over just this last summer, there were eight days of 90-degree readings in June, almost triple the monthly average. This ›rise in heat comes with great health concerns: each year, 350 New Yorkers succumb to heat stress, which aggravates their already pre-existing medical conditions.
A closer look at these statistics reveals an overlooked trend. Of these heat-related deaths, 43% are Black, and in general, Black New Yorkers are twice as likely to die from heat stress than White New Yorkers.
Urban Heat Island Effect and Solutions
New York City’s densely packed buildings and limited green space contribute to it being considered a “heat island”. These city structures absorb the sun’s heat and re-emit it more than landscapes like trees and bodies of water do. As a result, Urban Heat Islands experience temperatures 1–7°F higher than neighboring areas, like the suburbs.
With summer temperatures slowly rising in New York City, the city’s Heat Vulnerability Index emphasizes the dangers that having scarce quality green spaces can have on the risk of experiencing heat-related illnesses. Places like East Harlem, which is only a 15-minute walk from Central Park, receive a high danger score on the index of 4. However, other places like the Upper East Side, which have a comparable nine-minute walk to Central Park, receive the lowest danger score on the index of 1.
At the root of this difference lies redlining, and its negative impact on the financial and urban organization of neighborhoods. The distance may be comparable, but Central Harlem’s lack of adequate green space amenities, like parks with basketball courts and working bathrooms, leaves many park-goers unmotivated to go.
Understanding Redlining’s Racist History and Deadly Future
Recent studies have pinpointed a potential cause for this temperature difference: redlining’s impact on Black communities’ access to green space.
Introduced in the 1930s, Redlining was a racist form of financial relief for American citizens that excluded Black New Yorkers from receiving loans and mortgages by the government. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation's color-coded maps labeled neighborhoods“A” through “D”, with
red-colored “D” neighborhoods, primarily home to Black residents, warning lenders of
low-value properties that were not worthy of financial inclusion.
The ramifications of this practice go farther than enforcing modern-day segregation and impeding Black generational wealth. Redlining’s impacts are highlighted by the higher temperatures experienced by underprivileged neighborhoods, which are nearly always hotter than their privileged neighborhoods.
In some cases, these underprivileged neighborhoods can be almost 13 degrees hotter.
The main difference? While the Trust for Public Land reports that 99% of New Yorkers live within a ten-minute walk from a park, the average park size in Black neighborhoods is around 7.9 acres compared to 29.8 acres in predominantly White neighborhoods. Yet, these parks that serve primarily Black populations are almost five times as crowded as those that serve White populations. In light of the pandemic, this overcrowding consequently discouraged Black park goers out of fears of contracting COVID-19.
New York City’s tree canopy provides its citizens with natural protection and a cooling system from the heat, but its benefits are not equally shared amongst the city’s communities due to redlining. Redlining’s large role in determining a community’s access to quality green space has directly impacted Black communities' ability to maintain the necessary aspects of their community’s health and comfort.
To combat these disparities, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation can place more entrances to public parks in poor neighborhoods, which was just recently accomplished in Prospect Park. Other solutions include growing community gardens to increase green space and fixing broken park equipment to attract more park-goers to visit to cool off.
Fortunately, with raised awareness, there are plausible solutions to increase quality green spaces and ease the heatwaves experienced by Black communities.