For NYC, the legacy of redlining is in the air we breathe

In the 1930s, the Federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps of thousands of cities across the United States. Each neighborhood has been color-coded according to the perceived security of potential lenders’ investments.

On Brooklyn’s map, the area around the Navy Yard was colored bright red, signifying a “D” rating — the lowest possible. An accompanying account lists undesirable features like the nearby shipyard and the Brooklyn Bridge — and describes the neighborhood’s residents, who were mostly Italian and black merchants and workers. “Very many” received government support.

“An area of ​​poor real estate and a changing population of questionable character and occupation,” according to the report by HOLC, a government-sponsored group. Like so many neighborhoods populated by immigrants, people of color and those living in poverty, the area had been red-flagged, cutting off residents from home ownership and discouraging investment.

Fair housing laws in the 1960s officially ended redlining, but the long-term effects of injustice continue to show up within the old boundaries. New research links historical discrimination associated with generational damage from land use policies to contemporary pollution.

The once-closed-off neighborhood around the Navy Yard, for example, has some of the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — a toxic byproduct in car exhaust — in the entire city, according to new findings from University of California, Berkeley, professors. It also has elevated levels of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), tiny particles emitted by motor vehicles — like the trucks that chug overhead on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway — and industrial plants.

It’s not just the Navy Yard either. The Berkeley researchers found that throughout Greater New York, neighborhoods considered “unfavorable” nearly a century ago are, on average, more polluted than other communities mapped by the federal agency, typically along racial lines.

On average, the worst-rated neighborhoods have about 32% higher NO2 concentrations than the best-rated neighborhoods. PM2.5, or particle pollution, varies by just 6% between neighborhoods marked red and positive-rated neighborhoods – but experts say even small differences in pollutant levels can have big effects on residents’ health. Exposure to these tiny particles is linked to hospital visits for asthma and heart disease, as well as premature death — which disproportionately affects New Yorkers of color, and black New Yorkers in particular, according to city data.

“When it comes to environmental disparities in our country, the past is really with us today,” said Dr. Joshua Apte, co-author of the pollution study and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “These decisions, made over centuries and decades, still resonate today and in the air we breathe.”

Environmental justice advocates said the findings, published in the journal in March Environmental Science and Technology Letters, underscore the need for new spending to repair the legacy of damage associated with both redlining and land use policies, including locating power plants and highways near color communities. Such findings also point to the need for faster investment in renewable energy, as long-excluded communities continue to pay a price even when such discrimination has long been outlawed, proponents say.

Previous research has linked redlining to many other environmental and health differences. On average, residents of formerly red-flagged neighborhoods are sicker, have more pregnancy and childbirth complications, are more susceptible to extreme heat, and die younger than their neighbors living in areas with more favorable Home Owners’ Loan Corporation ratings. Many have also borne the brunt of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

The unfavorable ratings were based on the proportion of non-white or immigrant residents in a neighborhood and the presence of pre-existing sources of pollution. They made it harder for black families and other residents of red-line neighborhoods to buy homes, build wealth, and escape poverty, contributing to poorer overall health. The designation also made marked areas attractive targets for highways, peak power plants, waste transfer stations and heavy industry – all of which produce harmful emissions.

“It’s no coincidence that these neighborhoods with extremely high levels of traffic-related air pollution are the same neighborhoods where children are more likely to develop asthma,” said Dr. Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, chief of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Pulmonology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

For the Berkeley study, researchers compared the government-produced maps to emissions and census data from 2010. They calculated NO2 and PM2.5 levels for each census block and compared the average levels of these pollutants at each state assessment – “A”. “B”, “C” or “D”.

In all cities originally mapped by the government, neighborhoods circled in red had more exposure to NO2 and PM2.5 than neighborhoods with higher ratings. Even among residents of like-rated areas, the study found, people of color tended to be more exposed to these pollutants than their white neighbors — suggesting that redlining isn’t just responsible for racial disparities in air pollution.

These trends were also confirmed in the New York metropolitan area, where both pollutants were more concentrated in neighborhoods with the worst state ratings. Bergen County, New Jersey, and the Bronx both had particularly large differences between differently rated boroughs. Staten Island and Manhattan, on the other hand, had more modest variations.

The differences between individual districts are more extreme. Residents in the Navy Yard neighborhood, which includes two New York City Housing Authority complexes, are exposed to nearly three times higher concentrations of NO2 than residents in Riverdale, which has a primarily “A” and “B” rating from the HOLC became.

However, many neighborhoods are not following the trends: Much of Staten Island’s West Shore has received a “D” rating from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, but the region has below average levels of the two pollutants.

Experts and local environmental justice advocates alike said the results were affirmative but not surprising.

“It confirms what we in frontline communities have known for a long time,” said Arif Ullah, executive director of South Bronx Unite, an environmental advocacy that works in a neighborhood with high air pollution and the highest rate of pediatric asthma hospital admissions anywhere in the city .

“It all resulted in toxic, toxic air,” he said of the city-planning decisions that led to the construction of several highways, garbage transfer stations, and peak power plants in the neighborhood. “We breathe this air every day. Our community has paid the price for breathing that air.”

dr Joan Casey, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, praised the study but cautioned against drawing a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the company’s grades and 21st-century air pollution. Finally, she said, pre-existing sources of pollution may have helped give a neighborhood a D grade in the first place. The data is also from 2010, Casey noted, and neighborhood demographics and exposure to air pollution have changed since then.

“You’re looking at a snapshot,” she said. “It could be really interesting to know how these differences changed between 1930 and now, or even into 2020 and beyond.”

Freeways and industrial sites aren’t the only sources of dangerous air pollution: Gas stoves and space heaters can also contribute, says Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health.

“Whether it’s poor housing or a neighborhood with a lot of traffic, there are many different ways that we see disproportionate loads in practice in the real world,” he said.

Pundits and environmental justice advocates have urged elected officials to protect already-congested neighborhoods from new sources of pollution. Sonal Jessel, policy director at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, urged city and state officials to take steps away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy to reduce emissions and invest in underserved communities.

A New York State Assembly bill currently in committee would require developers to include special consideration for low-income and communities of color in their environmental statements. Lawmakers are also trying to secure $15 billion in funding for climate justice in the upcoming state budget. Funds would go to energy-efficient low-income housing, electrified school buses and renewable energy infrastructure, among other things.

“No more polluting gas in your home, no more dirty Peaker systems that create terrible air quality,” Jessel said.

The Environmental Protection Agency should also lower the acceptable threshold for PM2.5 from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 8, Casey said, referring to the air quality standards states are required to strive for under the Clean Air Act. Casey added that even small reductions in air pollution can have huge health implications.

“If we reduce [PM2.5] With just 1 microgram per cubic meter citywide, we could prevent myocardial infarction, asthma attacks and premature mortality,” she said. “It can lead to better health even at these low levels.”

Ken Alston, Jr., who teaches at a school near the Navy Yard, had an even simpler suggestion.

“Don’t put schools next to massive highways,” he said. “That would be a start.” For NYC, the legacy of redlining is in the air we breathe

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