Over this past weekend, New York City’s heat wave finally lifted when sweet rain cut the 100-plus degree temperatures. But not all neighborhoods experienced the same brain-melting heat. In some parts of the city, lack of shade from trees and an abundance of hard, dark surfaces conspired to make streets even hotter.
One of those places is the south side of Williamsburg. As you walk east of the waterfront, south of the L train, and towards the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the land cover changes. There are fewer street trees, next to no green spaces, and the sun glares harshly on naked sidewalks. “I think the community has dealt with the heat wave like every other community, trying to find cool spaces,” Anusha Venkataraman, a director at southside environmental justice group El Puente, says. “Unfortunately many of those spaces are indoors—we don’t have parks. We have one of the lowest rates of open space per resident in North Brooklyn.”
South Williamsburg, like the South Bronx and Newtown Creek area, is recognized as an environmental justice community, which means it has been routinely exposed to environmental harms and deprived of environmental benefits. It’s also home to many low-income residents (although that’s changing), a large Spanish-speaking population, and sees some of the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rates in the city.
A recent study out from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that South Williamsburg isn’t the only neighborhood that’s particularly vulnerable to heat risk given its lack of environmental protections. After looking at 300 communities nationwide, researchers found that Asians, African Americans, and Hispanic populations tend to be exposed to these heat-prone conditions more than Caucasians, and within those communities, racial segregation is a major factor—particularly in the 24 metro areas out of 300 throughout the country that they considered to be highly segregated.
“We did find that segregation—the degree to which whites live separately from everyone else—influences the degree to which people live in heat-prone neighborhoods,” says lead author Bill Jesdale.
What researchers found wasn’t only that minorities suffered two times the likelihood of heat-risk related land cover, but that segregation within communities indicated heat-prone conditions. The study explains that this was likely due to the fact that within segregated cities, non-white residents often live in densely populated neighborhoods with few street trees. “The degree to which neighborhoods tend to be neglected is not accidental,” Jesdale says. “It may not be as intentional as the Jim Crow laws were. But this is a pattern we see across the country.”
“That’s really interesting and not surprising,” says Venkataraman. “It’s a very general environmental justice issue.”
New York City has implemented some progressive changes to try and get more trees on barren streets, and Venkataraman has noticed a difference. Jesdale highlights the Million Trees NYC program, which plans to increase the amount of New York’s street trees by 20%. El Puente recently scored three new city lots that will be converted to community green spaces as part of its Green Light District program. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has implemented a similar tree-planting program—and one specifically guided by the lack of shade in segregated, low-income communities, Jesdale says.
Either way, rising temperatures that result from climate change represent a unique opportunity to tackle centuries-old inequality in the built environment. In New York City alone, Columbia University scientists have predicted that heat-related deaths will rise 20% over the next decade. The EPA has recommended that cities adopt more tree canopy and different paving to mitigate heat risk, but the Berkeley researchers suggest they do so with racial segregation in mind, paying specific attention to these at-risk neighborhoods.
“It really does go beyond the heat island effect,” Venkataraman says. “I think especially in regards to planting trees, that’s changing. But the type of investment required to make new parks and green spaces, which provide places for people to exercise and spend time, we don’t see that type of investment being made in low-income communities.”