In US cities, poorer neighborhoods are hotter
September 3, 2019 9:54 AM   Subscribe

As rising heat bakes US cities, the poor often feel it most (NPR). "[T]he hottest neighborhoods in Baltimore can differ by as much as 10 degrees from the coolest. [...] NPR analyzed 97 of the most populous U.S. cities using the median household income from U.S. Census Bureau data and NASA's thermal satellite images. In more than three-quarters of those cities, we found that where it's hotter, it also tends to be poorer."

Various factors contribute to increased surface temperatures in some urban neighborhoods. Less tree canopy reduces shade; increased pavement and concrete reduces evaporative cooling of the surface; nearby urban features like highways and industrial parks contribute additional heating. Increased temperatures lead to increased medical problems for residents of these neighborhoods, a problem which will only increase as the Earth continues to heat up.
posted by biogeo (27 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Considering that in the USA, heat kills more people than all other natural disasters combined, this points toward a really significant issue of health equity in a climate change era. And energy equity too - a/c is as much an issue of survival in heat waves as heating is during cold snaps. Maybe more so since the line between survival and death is finer.
posted by entropone at 10:09 AM on September 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Seems like a great time to recommend Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.
posted by crush at 10:09 AM on September 3, 2019 [10 favorites]

Extra special bonus: extreme heat is also a factor in many psychiatric conditions. Particularly as an extraordinarily common psychiatric medication side effect is increased difficulty with thermoregulation, particularly those patients taking anti-psychotics (previously).

Given the increased mental health burden of stress on working-class and poor folks, this just seems like an extra kick in the teeth.
posted by sciatrix at 10:31 AM on September 3, 2019 [22 favorites]

In the Bolivian capital it's the exact opposite: the wealthier half (~800K) live in La Paz at 3600m altitude, and the poorer people (~1M) live in neighboring El Alto at 4100m where it's colder and more exposed. A lot of people in El Alto need to commute down to La Paz for their jobs, so the government invested heavily in a modern cable car system since the usual mass transit options were completely unworkable and the drive can be hazardous.

Temperature delta is ~5C/10F (in reverse), and depending on time of day you'll feel it when you exit the cable car.
posted by Ryvar at 10:45 AM on September 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

The lack of tree canopy in the poorer parts of Chicago is really apparent when you fly into Midway Airport. It's pretty much the first thing I ever noticed about the city.
posted by srboisvert at 11:04 AM on September 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

In 2020 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., will meet in Baltimore. Just last month, the Presbyterian Outlook magazine published an article to demonstrate the profound racial and economic disparities that the General Assembly attendees can expect to see when they are here in 2020. I think it's a very good article, and I commend it to you in full. (I am an active member of a Baltimore Presbyterian church. We work with the Center, the ministry group profiled in the Outlook article.)

I was particularly struck by how neatly the last two photos in the Presbyterian Outlook article complement the heat and income maps in the NPR article. If Baltimore were a clock, the north-south artery that runs along the 12:00 line is Greenmount Avenue (closer to downtown), becoming York Road further north. As the NPR article illustrates, the wealthiest communities in north-central Baltimore, just to the west of York Road/Greenmount Avenue, enjoy the coolest temperatures. The last two photos in the Outlook article give you an on-the-ground look at this phenomenon. The last photo shows - literally behind an imposing stone gate - an affluent, tree-lined neighborhood on the west side of York Road, Guilford, in north-central Baltimore. Note the one-way sign. The second-to-last photo shows, behind the three people in the foreground, the neighborhood to the east, Pen Lucy. You'll see smaller rowhouses, more businesses (including many bars and corner carryout and liquor stores), and far fewer trees as you look east. You'll presumably be unsurprised to learn that the residents of Pen Lucy and other neighborhoods east of York Rd/Greenmount Ave are overwhelmingly African American and poor, whereas Guilford is almost exclusively white and its residents quite wealthy. If you want to see the starkness of the divide for yourself, the street view on Google Maps is here.

Heat, tree coverage, health outcomes, access to fresh food, life expectancy, rates of gun violence, obesity, and crime... they all vary by neighborhood, in predictable ways, in this hyper-segregated city. I've driven up and down York Road/Greenmount Avenue almost daily for over 20 years now, and I'm still shocked by the proximity of extreme affluence to extreme poverty. It's no accident, of course, thanks to our shameful and pernicious history of redlining, but it's an astonishingly persistent phenomenon.

Thanks for the informative post.
posted by cheapskatebay at 11:05 AM on September 3, 2019 [20 favorites]

Yes, thanks for the post! I believe that some of the heat map data NPR analyzed was collected by my cousin Vivek's group at Portland State.

The New York Times reported on some of that work last month.
posted by el gran combo at 12:18 PM on September 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

My neighborhood tree canopy has been decimated by the ash tree apocalypse (emerald ash borer), and I’ve lost 5 ash trees in my yard in the past 5 years, plus a Norway maple that completely died over the winter. When I lost the backyard ash tree on the west side of our house I noticed the increased temperatures inside immediately - I started using the air conditioning a couple hours per afternoon on a regular basis, whereas I can count the number of times I turned on the AC in previous years. Even if you/your landlord/your city can afford to replant/water/take care of a tree, it takes decades for that shade to return. In the meantime, the city roasts.

We’re fortunate enough to have installed a sump pump in our basement after it flooded 5 years ago. This spring we started out with 3 fewer trees than last year, and our pump has been been going almost constantly. Without the trees to intercept and absorb storm water through their root systems, it just flows and flows down the hill to our house. This period of climate change coinciding with invasive species wiping out billions of trees will only compound the damage to life and property. These are crazy, wild times.
posted by Maarika at 1:09 PM on September 3, 2019 [11 favorites]

One of the worst places I've ever lived was Phoenix.

In this story, I actually liked the place and people, but it was a marginalized starving artist situation in a really beat up property that needed a lot of work. Before it was attempting to be an art space it was being reportedly squatted by meth addicts and had been well ravaged by this experience.

My tiny room or place was very nearly the size of a closet hastily framed and dry-walled into the corner of a non-metaphoric tin-roofed shed or shack with no air conditioning about the size of a two or three car garage by a previous tenant. Even better it had suffered some fire damage.

It had no windows, only one very iffy metal ventilation duct to the outside of the drywall but still inside the shed. It had no door hung, just a shoddy frame.

Wait, it gets better. This is my upgrade. I had to clean a bunch of junk out of that drywalled area in the shed first, so I spent the better part of the first month there in a bombed out unit with no power or plumbing and a huge hole cut out of the subfloor exposing the dirt, liberally used by the cats as a litter box. A whole section of one wall of that unit was missing, a brick arch and window casement that was missing.

Meanwhile I'm attempting to keep a marginal part time shirt and tie tech support job at a dodgy, depressing diploma mill tech college. Getting ready would take me a couple of hours so I didn't immediately sweat through my shirt. I'd walk real slow to the bus and hope the air conditioning worked.

I make it through that summer mainly without any cooling at all. I remember measuring temps up to 130, 135 in the drywalled room in the shed with the metal roof. I spent a lot of time in the main space with the swamp cooler or outside in the shade during the day.

Outdoor temps at night in the heart of urban Phoenix could sometimes stay above 100.

I was drinking up to 2-3 gallons of water a day and still barely having to go to the bathroom. I remember I used to have a nice PDA that I'd play games on or read ebooks on as I fell asleep, and one night it somehow fell under my futon on a really hot night. I sweat so heavily that night that I woke up and thought I'd pissed myself because it had soaked through the futon and ruined that PDA. No, it wasn't pee, it was just sweat.

So this whole time I have a very nice, modern window AC unit I had previously scored off of Craigslist just waiting to be installed, but because of work and collective art weirdo laziness I never managed to cut the hole in the wall to install it and run the heavier new electrical line from the main building.

Also keep in mind this whole time I don't even really have a fridge. I have a weird little 12V van cooler with a Peltier chip. It barely has enough room in it for a sandwich, so I pack half of it with a large styrofoam cup of ice from the local liquor store and bodega and, say, a single yogurt, a bit of cheese, maybe a vaguely cooler beverage or other small snacks.

At some point I finally snapped and had had enough and stomped into the main space to loudly declare that I had had enough and where the hell is the Sawszall? It took me several, miserable sweaty hours to finally install that thing and run the new power drop.

I still didn't even have a door. I half-solved that by nailing a heavy sleeping bag over most of the frame.

So even with that really high powered window AC unit I might keep it in the 90s if it was 110 outside, because it was like 130+ in the shed. I might hit mid 70s at night. And this was cooler and drier than the main space with the nasty ol' swamp cooler. It was... a lot more tolerable.

When I finally moved out of there, out of Phoenix and all the way to the PNW for the first time, it had been something like a 115+ outside every day for 10 days straight, and it was monsoon season so humidity was as much as 100%, full on downpours with steam coming off of everything, even the bare earth.
posted by loquacious at 1:38 PM on September 3, 2019 [13 favorites]

>Just last month, the Presbyterian Outlook magazine published an article to demonstrate the profound racial and economic disparities that the General Assembly attendees can expect to see when they are here in 2020.

Thanks for the article, cheapskatebay. "Profound" is right.
posted by rue72 at 1:43 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

File this under ‘obvious for many people in their lived experience but is absolutely necessary and vital as a topic of timely and rigorous research’

A while back there was some research supporting the claim that in cities in the USA, more crime happens where trees aren’t.

So hey let’s all plant more trees, urban forestry is a key part of saving our planet and our cities.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:25 PM on September 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

If you want to see the starkness of the divide for yourself, the street view on Google Maps is here.

The starkness of the divide there isn't really that bad -since Baltimore is a respectable east coast metro, that may not be wealthy but isn't totally dirt poor and does care about urban planning and didn't fully bulldoze downtown for parking. You can even seen that many of the commercial roofs are recovered in white, even in poor neighborhoods, which is a sign they have been upgraded to deal with the heat. Un-upgraded commercial roofs are black.

Now let's check Amarillo. It has better weather than you might think, hot in the summer but not that humid - and they literally grow crops all the way around the city. Do they know about trees? The answer is most assuredly yes. But check .downtown. Barely any street trees. Hey can you find the wealthy single family homes?

And the whole of the south and west is basically the same.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:31 PM on September 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

This summer's Popular Science had an article: Urban forests are dying. Baltimore shows us how to bring them back.
posted by mikelieman at 3:11 PM on September 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

In Australia where most cities are around the coast this is absolutely true too. The wealthy suburbs are the ones near the water, where sea breezes keep the temperature 5-10 degrees C lower than more inland where poorer people live.

In Sydney you'd think the exception might be once you get far enough inland to hit the "mountains", where the altitude cools things down again, but no, that's rich person country now too. So there's this band of 50km or so of Western Sydney between the inner West and the blue mountains which is poor and hot, then a strip of cool and rich, then on the other side you are back to poor and hot again. It's really striking.

And of course the poorer parts are less likely to have good air-conditioning, or be able to afford to use it, so it's a double whammy.
posted by lollusc at 4:41 PM on September 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also folks in poorer neighborhoods probably tend to be 'home' a lot more, which in turn uses appliances more, like stoves, microwaves, tv, hot water and a/c... all of which generates a lotta extra ambient heat in the nearby area. And as a landlord, tenants who don't go to school or a job are often considered less 'desirable', not only because they're not working and may have sketchy income, but also because of that extra wear and tear on the rental and appliances in general, always 'running', 24/7.
posted by ming on mongo at 4:47 PM on September 3, 2019

Wilco was right all along.

It's hot in the Poor Places tonight.
posted by lumpy at 7:13 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's been said.. but trees.... more trees.... they look cool, give shade, help stabilize soil. Trees are awesome. They take time and space, but shouldn't cost too much if started from young ones, no? Of course space can be hard to come by, and everything in volume is expensive, younger trees probably need more love and care to survive (especially in an urban environment).

The difference between the nearby grocery store parking lot and our home (we're lucky there's 11 mature trees on our lot) is just astonishing, cities need more trees.

And on that subject, suburbs can be f****ng depressing about that, my parents have one big tree in the backyard and the one they planted in the front yard never really developed so they're no champions of trees. But it seems that in the 20 years I've been gone nobody on the street added a tree, its still grass, grass, grass, I don't get it.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 7:38 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

In addition to needing more trees, cities need fewer parking lots, less road surface.
posted by crush at 7:56 PM on September 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

I think they missed a beat by limiting it to just city boundaries and not including suburbs/surrounding census areas. Detroit is a great example: it claims weak or no correlation. Of course that's the case, because most of the wealth is in the suburbs. Had they included just the Grosse Pointes (immediately to the east of Detroit), the scale and correlations would be completely different.
posted by bonje at 9:44 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

This piece is a lengthy article on shade in urban America, and while the examples are specific to Los Angeles it opened my eyes to some reasons I hadn’t previously been aware of for why there is so little shade in poorer areas. The part about trees getting cut down so police helicopters could capture images was heartbreaking: Shade
posted by cali at 1:42 AM on September 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

My neighborhood tree canopy has been decimated by the ash tree apocalypse (emerald ash borer), and I’ve lost 5 ash trees in my yard in the past 5 years, plus a Norway maple that completely died over the winter. When I lost the backyard ash tree on the west side of our house I noticed the increased temperatures inside immediately - I started using the air conditioning a couple hours per afternoon on a regular basis, whereas I can count the number of times I turned on the AC in previous years.

Anecdotally, as well, our place faces directly west, with windows all along that side. In the years that we've lived here, trees in the front yard have either appeared, or grown and thickened. With a fast-growing arbutus and a thickening birch casting shade, this year was the tipping point in a positive way. We used to roast in the summer, and my husband installed exterior shades a few years ago. We only used them once this year, as opposed to daily in July-August.

The effects of tree shade are remarkable. Also the psychological effect of seeing green, living trees and their birds and squirrels.

We need more trees.
posted by Savannah at 7:47 AM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

BRB I'm going to go hug like 50 trees.
posted by loquacious at 10:51 AM on September 4, 2019

In New York City, our power company realized it was going to see cascading power failures during a heat wave... so it intentionally cut power to a bunch of poor minority neighborhoods. People are pissed.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:00 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

For a really visceral illustration of this problem, check out
posted by ReginaHart at 12:49 PM on September 7, 2019

Climate Gentrification: Coming to a Community Near You (Mother Jones)
posted by MrVisible at 1:02 PM on September 7, 2019

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