Race and class and heat in cities

Hot temperatures in cities and towns are not experienced the same by residents. Neighborhoods with more minority residents (especially), neighborhoods with lower-income residents, and neighborhoods with residents with lower education levels “experience hotter temperatures during summer heatwaves than nearby white residents” and residents with higher incomes and more formal education. This trend has been documented for years in major cities but research also shows that it happens even in small towns.

These racial and class disparities exist because non-white and/or lower-income, less-educated neighborhoods tend to be more densely built up with buildings and pavement that trap heat and have fewer trees and green spaces to cool the landscape.

Living and working in areas with high heat and, importantly, being unable to find significant relief from the heat has a major and growing impact on health and productivity, as well as energy use, energy needs, and a myriad of other factors. As heat waves get worse all over the world, these disparities in urban life can threaten the very habitability and functionality of cities.

Featured article (this article has been added to the Science Primary Literature database):

*Benz, S. A., & Burney, J. A. (2021). Widespread race and class disparities in surface urban heat extremes across the United States. Earth’s Future, 9, e2021EF002016. [PDF] [Cited by]

“Here we use remotely sensed land surface temperature measurements to explore the distribution of the United States’ urban heating burden, both at high resolution (within cities or counties) and at scale (across the whole contiguous United States). While a rich literature has documented neighborhood-level disparities in urban heat exposures in individual cities, data constraints have precluded comparisons across locations. Here, drawing on urban temperature anomalies during extreme summer surface temperature events from all 1,056 US counties with more than 10 developed census tracts, we find that the poorest tracts (and those with lowest average education levels) within a county are significantly hotter than the richest (and more educated) neighborhoods for 76% of these counties (54% for education); we also find that neighborhoods with higher Black, Hispanic, and Asian population shares are hotter than the more White, non-Hispanic areas in each county. This holds in counties with both large and small spreads in these population shares, and for 71% of all counties the significant racial urban heat disparities persist even when adjusting for income. Although individual locations have different histories that have contributed to race- and class-based geographies, we find that the physical features of the urban environments driving these surface heat exposure gradients are fairly uniform across the country. Systematically, the disproportionate heat surface exposures faced by minority communities are due to more built-up neighborhoods, less vegetation, and—to a lesser extent—higher population density.”

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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