Home > Essays > Need Proof of Systemic Racism? Look at Where Trees are Planted and Air is Polluted for Proof… and the Cause in Both Cases is Redlining.

Need Proof of Systemic Racism? Look at Where Trees are Planted and Air is Polluted for Proof… and the Cause in Both Cases is Redlining.

July 3, 2021

Earlier this week two articles on zoning decisions provided unequivocal evidence of systemic racism. As readers of this blog know, I’ve asserted over the years that exclusionary zoning practices contributed to de facto segregation. As a part-time graduate student at Penn in 1972 I wrote a paper describing this phenomenon, a paper that eventually led to a Ford Fellowship that helped me get my degree and begin my career in school administration. Now, nearly 50 years later, the sour fruits of the practices I wrote about illustrate how systemic racism and zoning decisions are linked. 

Interestingly, the article from the NYTimes describing how tree growth is tied to redlining provides a map that illustrates the exclusionary zoning practices I highlighted in my term paper. In “Since When Have Trees Existed for Only Rich Americans“, guest writers Ian Leahy and Yaryna Serkez provide a map at the outset of the article that depicts the difference between the trees in the affluent Chestnut Hill neighborhood in NW Philadelphia with the tree coverage in redlined neighborhoods, which included West Philadelphia. If one looks just north of Chestnut Hill you can see a dark, heavily treed area— which is Springfield Township, where zoning regulations had the effect of limiting high density housing and promoting the retention of open space and trees. The differential in housing prices creates a de facto $200,000+ wall around Philadelphia. West Philadelphia, were I worked as a Middle School math teacher at the time I was researching this topic, is shown as treeless. When I lived in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that neighborhood was “in transition” from being largely white to almost completely Black– a transformation that happened quickly and resulted in the plunging value of houses much to the dismay of the Black first-time home owners who thought they were moving into stable neighborhoods with solid housing values. The beneficiaries of this “transition” were the real estate agents who received far more sales than they would have had the neighborhoods remained stable, the banks who transacted many more mortgages, and the speculators who moved in a few years later when the value of the housing stock was diminished and it was possible to convert single home dwellings into apartments.

Members of the GOP and business community can claim that this is the result of “market forces”… but having lived in that part of Philadelphia it was abundantly clear that when one black family moved into a block that many white families were alerted to that by realtors seeking to expand their inventory…. and the message the realtors gave was clear: when Blacks move in, housing values go down.

Zoning also impacts air quality… and as an article from the NYTimes from late April indicates, people of color reathe more toxic air that Whites. An overview of the study and why this is the case is offered in the article: 

Now, a new study on a particularly harmful type of air pollution shows just how broadly those disparities hold true. Black Americans are exposed to more pollution from every type of source, including industry, agriculture, all manner of vehicles, construction, residential sources and even emissions from restaurants. People of color more broadly, including Black and Hispanic people and Asian-Americans, are exposed to more pollution from nearly every source…

These disparities have roots in historical practices, like redlining, under which the federal government marked certain neighborhoods as risky for real estate investments because their residents were Black. For decades, residents of redlined areas were denied access to federally backed mortgages and other credit, fueling a cycle of disinvestment and environmental problems in those neighborhoods.

“Communities of color, especially Black communities, have been concentrated in areas adjacent to industrial facilities and industrial zones, and that goes back decades and decades, to redlining,” said Justin Onwenu, a Detroit-based organizer for the Sierra Club. “And a lot of our current infrastructure, our highways, were built on — built through — Black communities, so we’re breathing in diesel emissions and other pollution just because we’re located right next to these highways,” Mr. Onwenu said.

Members of the GOP and business community can claim that this is the result of “market forces”… but redlining CREATES a “market force” that devalues properties… it is neither accidental or coincidental: it is causal. 



%d bloggers like this: