A stunning visualization of how racist housing policies create urban heat islands

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/12/30/a-stunning-visualization-of-how-racist-housing-policies-create-urban-heat-islands.html


Now that we have identified the problem, how do we fix it?

I am thinking an update in landscaping/building codes and standards could also be viewed as “racist” and would destroy/gentrify the neighborhood, as these costly requirements would be pushing out the very minorities for which we are trying to improve their situation. (I am thinking of a “government backed” HOA running amok.)

1 Like

More trees and parks, fewer parking lots, streets that prioritise pedestrians and bikes over cars, removing elevated or trench expressways. None of those those things – especially as part of a larger equitable city plan that also makes affordable housing a priority – necessarily pushes out existing residents.

Those are the broad details, though. A true fix will require officials to get away from the mindset that some neighbourhoods and communities “deserve” those nice things while others don’t.


The problem with that headline and graphic is that some will just takeaway that Density is Bad and suburban living is the way. The issue is not so much the people (though zoning/redlining has a lot to answer for) but cars, the amount of impermeable heat-absorbing land given over for car mobility and storage and the concentrated emissions they leave behind. Car use in cities (everywhere tbh) is subsidized but in cities it comes with a public health/quality of life price tag that we pay without realizing it.

Land use policy needs a complete overhaul, returning the value of land to cities rather than speculators and real estate plays (from fast food to big box stores and mall, it’s all of a piece) and making the transportation of people, rather than cars, a priority for transportation departments.


When the parking lot next to the (business) is city owned, that is easy. When the parking lot is owned by the (business), the use of eminent domain to convert it into a park, that is where it starts to get complicated as that will start a chain reaction of the entire business neighborhood starts to scramble to sacrifice “their competition” to this goal.

This art form called urban planning is a delicate balance between the collective good (green ecological living) against entrenched economic interests (externalizing these costs onto others.)

This is overly simplified. I think it’s more accurate to say we’ve been largely duped into accepting the story entrenched economic interests have sold us, to our own detriment. A dollar spent at Walmart leaves, what, 32 cents to circulate in the community (this is from a while ago, may be too generous now) until that, too is spent at Walmart, and so on.
The jobs promised are always low wage and generally insecure, while taxpayers subsidize infrastructure support, and the developers fight tooth and nail against any environmentally-sound landscape requirements.
Walkable downtowns populated by local businesses, how did we let ourselves get talked out of it?


I think it’s largely due to the fact that until recently, most of the people politicians paid attention to were in the suburbs, where those things did not matter. They had a car, could walk around their neighborhoods, why spend “their” tax dollars on places they rarely went, and most certainly did not drive to. It’s starting to change now, as people now want to live in cities and walk to a local shop more often.


Around these parts it’s readily apparent that a key difference in the (otherwise very similarly urban in terms of development style) demographics is that in the affluent areas (where the owners and the dwellers happen to be the same people) - trees are regarded as an asset, particularly larger older trees that provide substantial shade.

In the poorer areas where the owners and controlling forces have far less personal presence and/or economic flexibility - trees are a liability, requiring annoying maintenance and upkeep, when they get larger the roots overpower the pavement and then it’s time for them to go rather than design for their co-existence.

1 Like

This characterises so many aspects of USA politics and culture. Even setting the inherent racism aside (which, I agree, one cannot do in practice) a civil society - dare I say a civilised one, indeed dare I say social democratic one - would look at declining areas and conclude that for the benefit of civil society these are not areas to redline and deny investment to, but areas to prioritise and encourage investment in.

But an economy that sees itself as more important than the society it operates in, a society in which everything is privatised and reliant on private capital, whose risks must be minimised to protect investors and owners, sees declining areas as too risky and to be avoided, thus creating a self-fulfilling prediction: these areas decline further.

Even the Tories in the '80s in the UK still had some common sense and realised that some places - like Liverpool for example - needed focused investment. It may have been self-interest driven by fear of losing too many votes, but it was relatively effective. But, of course, the US response to the same situation is to gerrymander and suppress voting rights from those who might vote in protest. It is easy to remove the need to invest to stave off electoral threats when the same threat can staved off by fixing the electoral rolls and boundaries.


Right? Pretty much the whole of the western world (or maybe the whole world?) has problems with racism in their public policies for the past few centuries…


Some people actually like to be in an urban sprawl suburb with indipendent homes and no noisy business and supermarket, and prefer to go anyway to go to the big mall because is “cheaper”.
I have heard a person not liking that in an abandoned warehouse a supermarket chain decided to buy it and convert it in a supermarket because having a supermarket will make the road noisy and busy and that surely will be more expensive than go to the big mall on the route of her workplace. I had a bit lost the contacts during lockdown, curious if she changed idea.

1 Like

Word; there is no utopia-like nation on the entire planet where racism is “nonexistent.”

If there were, I’d have already immigrated there by now.


Sure, but that assumes that our likes and dislikes are fully independent from the ideological structures that shape our world. They are not, of course. Society is both a reflection of our desires, likes, and interests as well as the shaping those things in a big kind of feedback loop. We’ve been told, in any number of ways, since the end of world war 2, that suburban living is superior to urban or rural living, and many people have accepted that, and have pushed for public policies that support that. They may very much like it, but that doesn’t mean that like is not shaped by forces outside their own brains.

And it would be foolish and shortsighted to shape policy around “likes” (which can very much be shaped and changed) rather than around things that are socially and environmentally sound, that work for all of society.


I defer to your historical knowledge.*
But anecdotally, a couple generations ago, one could get from my town down to Portland, ME on public transportation in about 45 minutes (street cars). The lines all got ripped up when cars became more common, and automobile culture is a class/race/environmental nightmare now that it’s fully entrenched.
Now it would be nigh impossible to live here and work in Portland without your own car, which, when you are in it, you can get pulled over, detained and (for all real intents and purposes) searched for no real reason.
I blame “big car” at least as much as anything else for the state we find our downtowns in. Which, now that I’ve written it out, isn’t a contradiction to your comment, just another piece of the puzzle (or nail in the coffin) of what brought us here.

  • clarification: by historical knowledge I meant knowledge of history, not that you are 100 years old.

You don’t even need to do that. It is possible to feed both desires. Most parking doesn’t exist because of business need. Most parking exists due to code mandated parking minimums. Eliminating the minimums will force parking to compete with more valid uses. Right now every mandated parking space represents a tax on everyone.Once you’ve eliminated the minimums you can leave a standing offer of municipal (or county or whoever) purchase for parks or other uses with lot subdivision. Beyond that, most of the land currently provided rent free to car users is government owned. A well thought out lane diet on a lot of roads would provide for small linear greenspaces for runoff or tree canopy. Removing the massive subsidies to auto driven development will work wonders, and pretty quickly in the most economically healthy cities.

By a combination of racism, war policy, industrial policy, and a few more weird bits and pieces. The racism angle is pretty well known in this forum, both the redlining and the media depiction of cities as racialized hellscapes. The war policy was part of the cold war push to decentralize cities as a way to minimize losses in event of nuclear war (this has less documentation and is more disputed). The industrial policy related to the better profitability of single occupancy vehicles.

That didn’t happen by accident. The noise of core urban areas, relative state of upkeep of the homes in the core, and even the cost of the big mall are the result of policies we’ve pursued. Prioritizing auto access to the suburbs has increased the level of noise pollution in the core. Road design choices made being too close to busy commercial centers particularly unpleasant. The subsidized roads, tax subsidies for greenfield development, and subsidized infrastructure make it cheaper per square foot to maintain a big box store on the edge of town. Sure, lots of people would choose a rural life, or be willing to pay full ride for a suburban one, but far fewer and they would bear the costs rather than the rest of us.


Yeah, I’m aware of at least the general impact of those things. I guess what I’m asking about is how it got so pervasive. Not really asking, just rhetorically wondering over.
For example: Where I live (and this is not a selling point for me, just a fact) we have a minority population of somewhere like 1%. Our populace is old and generally low to moderate income. It’s in everyone’s best interest to encourage zoning laws that retain the small walkable downtowns we inherited, yet people who have no experience with the “hellish cityscapes” continuously vote to allow more sprawl, get rid of sidewalks, reduce public transit, etc.
Around here, I think it’s a combo of greedy developers and unorganized citizen’s groups, the latter of which I totally share the blame for.

1 Like

It’s always been a key part of American policy. Racism was baked into our social DNA from the start.

Well, just because they might not have direct experiences, they’ve had them via their TVs, newscasts and decades of films, TV shows, and documentaries that have been telling them how “dangerous” cities are.

I think that’s true in other places, too, but the ideology of post-civil rights racism was often an animating factor for many, too.


You could make car placed in various mode and a macadam thrown at is only one of them.
Unfortunately if the land is cheap and aren’t other constraint, it’s the easier route.

Quiz: where are the parking spaces here, both for the offices and the condos? Hint: look where the steel gates are.
In this case the constraind is that this area was an industrial area that was in the outskits of the city but the cit grow, and having a steel mill and a tyre factory in the middle of the city wasn’t the greatest of the ideas.
So the area was rebuilt with commercial, business and residential buildings.

1 Like

Feedback loops,money, and mass media are the big drivers. Most cities were held in a very traditional form by tech limitations, particularly transportation, until around the mid 1800s. Cities generate a pretty natural attraction and repulsion. Being near the core makes commerce and communication easier, but exposes you to everyone else’s issues. Starting in the interwar years social policies and mass media shifted that balance and created a small nudge outward for the upper middle class (the very wealthy have always had the option to travel easier and have commerce come to them, but even they often maintained a town home). A much larger push started post war. At a certain point people lost a direct daily connection to the positive side of the city, but continued to get a steady media diet of city bad suburb good for the next few decades. Eventually you feel no connection to the out group in the core or even the distant suburbs and it becomes easier to compete on low land prices and favorable tax treatment. Once you’ve done that the next area out can use the same technique because your land costs have risen and you have to maintain the aging infrastructure and can’t be as tax friendly. At the same time that very disinvestment is making it harder for the core to hold, feeding the lurid tales in the media and feeding the tax flight. Then it repeats. We’ve spent a century turbo charging that process, so it plays out even if no participant is doing anything unreasonable.

1 Like