Communities of color in Boston are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic — places like East Boston, Chelsea, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan — and they are about to be slammed again, this time by searing heat waves.
Like COVID-19, severe heat waves are not an “equal opportunity” health threat. The most disinvested neighborhoods — those dominated by buildings, pavement, and parking lots — are hit the hardest. The built environment of these places absorbs and traps heat, creating a “heat island effect” that makes them dangerously hotter than other neighborhoods while worsening their air quality.
Every year, extreme heat kills more people in the United States than any other weather-related event and hospitalizes thousands more, disproportionately burdening communities with the least resources.
With fewer parks, trees, and open green space, many under-resourced Black and Latinx neighborhoods will swelter this summer as they continue to fight the pandemic. Findings from the Healthy Neighborhoods Study show that residents in our nine partner communities in Eastern Massachusetts will experience scorching heat — with temperatures up to 20 degrees higher than in other parts of the region.
That’s not an accident. It’s the result of decades-old racist policies and current development practices.
For years, majority Black and brown communities have been marginalized on many fronts because of intentional disinvestment, redlining, the location of brownfields — a site targeted for redevelopment though it may be contaminated with hazardous waste — and development that added gray surfaces at the expense of green spaces.
These are the communities that suffer from worse health over time and are most negatively affected by changes like climate disasters and gentrification.
In fact, research has found that communities across the United States that experienced redlining — the formerly legal practice of restricting home loans for people of color to certain areas — are hotter and have worse air quality.
Typically, cities provide resources like cooling centers at libraries or malls or splash pads during heat waves. But social distancing and state-mandated closures make that challenging this summer. Further, in-home air conditioning isn’t an affordable option for many who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Communities and elected leaders can do something.
The COVID-19 recovery process offers an opportunity to prepare high-risk communities for the climate challenges they will disproportionately face as temperatures rise. In the short term, cooling plans need to support social distancing, and over the long term, equitable development plans need to green, cool, and resource Black and brown communities. There are practical solutions in the work our community-based partners have been leading for decades.
Recovery and resilience funds must be directed toward at-risk neighborhoods, including support for increased energy efficiency, green infrastructure, flood mitigation, and expanded public transit.
State and city governments must invest in the equitable development of parks and urban green spaces so that all residents have access to safer, cooler, and less polluted environments — and a better quality of life. Parks and trees not only cool the environment, but they also create opportunities for people to exercise and play, reduce stress, and socialize.
Additionally, residents should help determine how to expand green space, whether it’s for a community garden or a park or a playground to mitigate heat island effects over the long run. They should have ownership over what happens in their communities — which not only leads to more effective solutions but also meaningfully contributes to better health.
That’s why it’s essential to center plans and responses for heat and climate impacts on those living and working in the places most impacted. Leaders must spend time in these communities to learn about the unique challenges people face; meet residents where they are, when they’re available, in the languages they speak; and listen. Developers and decision makers need to commit to full community engagement on important infrastructure decisions, such as the proposed effort underway to build a power substation in East Boston.
Society can’t continue to tolerate the same kinds of inequities that make some areas more vulnerable to both COVID-19 and extreme heat. Justice demands that policy makers correct generations of discrimination and work to create a future where health and well-being for all are prioritized.
Climate change and COVID-19 are everyone’s problems. Communities of color should not continue to bear the greatest burdens for our entire region.
Reann Gibson is a senior research fellow at the Conservation Law Foundation and manager of its Healthy Neighborhoods Study.