Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 9 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project

Editors: Jessica Roberts, Jillian Aicher, Colt Watkiss
Contributing Researcher: Rhea Mallett

Urban Heat Islands and Equity

Mass protests last summer demonstrated an increased awareness of the institutional racism pervading our criminal justice system.  But what about the codified racism that is inherent in the building of America?  It is no accident that the majority of people living in the most polluted neighborhoods of American cities and towns are predominantly low-income and non-white.  Recent research demonstrates that our federal government’s ‘redlining’ of neighborhoods based on race is partially responsible for the great wealth disparity between the white and black population in the United States today. This data shows that redlining is also linked to greater vulnerability to the effects of climate change, including premature death and serious illness.  While the more affluent live with more open space, trees, cleaner air, and security, those who have disproportionately shouldered the burden of development are now at greater risk from climate change and extreme weather events.

Neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930s were identified as hazardous financial risks for mortgages and financial investment simply because black people lived in them. While redlining wasn’t the beginning of racial segregation, it is responsible for the systemic underinvestment in targeted neighborhoods by banks and mortgage lenders.  The original Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) redlined maps show that the neighborhoods deemed hazardous already had greater amounts of impervious surfaces (pavement, structures) and pollution (toxic air and noxious odors) than the white neighborhoods that were given the green light for financial investment.  The underinvestment in redlined neighborhoods led to deteriorating conditions and low property values, which brought highways, manufacturing, and private industry to these areas. The neighborhoods that were originally redlined became overwhelmingly concrete and increasingly polluted.

While it was known that impoverished neighborhoods with mostly non-white populations were hotter than nearby wealthier neighborhoods, recent research has linked redlining to present-day unequal exposure to extreme heat. In a study of 108 formerly redlined neighborhoods, nearly all of them are now between 5 to 12 °F hotter than non-redlined neighborhoods nearby. People living in these urban heat islands—where impermeable surfaces and lack of vegetation cause the ambient air to be hotter than surrounding areas — are at increased risk during extreme heat events.

Heat is the nation’s deadliest weather disaster, causing as many as 12,000 deaths annually.   Every 1°F temperature increase during a heatwave increases the mortality rate by 2.5% to 5%.  Extreme heat causes and exacerbates many illnesses, including heatstroke, cardiovascular and kidney disease, and respiratory problems.  People who are more vulnerable to heat-related illness and death include the elderly, children, the homeless, and those with underlying medical conditions.  Air quality also suffers from heat-induced ozone; the increased reliance on air conditioning expands energy use, further exacerbating air pollution.

Rapid temperature increases from climate change have made the United States hotter overall and increased the number of extreme heat events.  Without a significant curtailment of greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures could rise by 5°F by mid-century, with an anticipated 20 to 30 more days of extreme heat annually in some parts of the country.

Mitigating the impact of heat on formerly redlined neighborhoods is critical to the health of those living in low-income, socio-economically disadvantaged communities. An effective solution necessitates government resources, public/private partnerships, financial support, public education, and a commitment to remedy the situation from all levels of government.

At the Pace Law Land Use Center, we have identified how municipalities can reduce the harmful impacts of heat by using their delegated land use regulatory authority. By using these strategies, local governments can reduce the impact that extreme heat events will have on the population in lower income neighborhoods as earth’s temperatures increase.

This blog is accompanied by another titled: Urban Heat Island and Equity: What Can Local Governments Do? That blog will describe various measures localities can immediately implement to mitigate the impact of extreme heat events, which is fast becoming a national public health emergency targeting already marginalized communities.

[*] Rhea Mallett is an LLM candidate at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Law Center Volunteer.
Jessica Roberts is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
Jillian Aicher is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
Colt Watkiss is a first-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Law Center Volunteer.

The previous blogs in the series are listed here:

  1. Reframing Sustainability: Introducing the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
  2. Planning for Public Health: A New Beginning for Land Use Law
  3. The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19
  4. Novel Coronavirus Claims Implicate Age-Old Property Rights Questions
  5. State & Local COVID-related Emergency Powers: Individual Rights
  6. COVID-Related Land Use Regulations and Judicial Deference
  7. Mediation of Eviction Disputes May Hold the Key to the Survival of Small Businesses
  8. Using Zoning to Help Eliminate Food Deserts: A Few Steps Forward


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