Groundwork RVA, a community-based non-profit in Richmond, Virginia, is working to build climate safe neighborhoods in communities where the ramifications of historic redlining are still ubiquitous. (Image: Groundwork RVA)

It’s summer. It’s hot. But it’s more than just summer. The increase in extreme weather events in 2020 are clearly being tied to climate change by scientists. 

Where is it hottest? Cities. Where in cities? Mostly lower income neighborhoods of people of color where parks and trees are fewer and farther between. A recent Lightning Update shared analysis from the Trust for Public Lands showing parks serving primarily non-white populations are half as large as those serving majority white populations. That analysis also noted a 2020 study finding that for 98% of 108 studied cities historically redlined neighborhoods were hotter than their neighbors by as much as 7 °C. 

The ramifications are devastating. Another 2020 study finds there are 12,000 premature deaths in the nation each year due to excessive heat. Without aggressive mitigation, those numbers are projected to skyrocket by 2100. 

So what do the patterns of heat and their origins look like in a particular city? This week, the New York Times profiled the patterns of a Chesapeake watershed city — Richmond, Virginia — in “How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering.” 

The article’s graphic presentation of maps is compelling and convincing. Red-lined neighborhoods, paved surfaces, lack of tree cover, and higher heat all correlate. You should take a look.

Heat map overlaying historically redlined neighborhoods in Richmond(Image: New York Times) 

Scroll through Groundwork RVA’s Climate Safe Neighborhoods story map for great visuals and an explanation of the issues. (Image: Groundwork RVA) 

But don’t stop there. Groundwork RVA’s work in Richmond, highlighted in the Times story, is outlined in more detail with some great visuals in this story map. And for even more, the City of Richmond has launched a “Climate Equity Index” interactive mapping tool as part of RVAgreen 2050, the city’s “equity-centered climate action and resilience planning initiative to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and help the community adapt to Richmond’s climate impacts of extreme heat, precipitation, and flooding.” 

The New York Times story notes: “Today, the Richmond area can expect about 43 days per year with temperatures of at least 90 degrees. By 2089, climate models suggest, the number of very hot days could double. ‘All of a sudden you’re sitting on top of really unlivable temperatures,” said Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia and a co-author of the redlining study.” 

Richmond is not unique in this regard, as the New York Times story points out. Other cities poorer neighborhoods, including Baltimore and Washington DC, face similar heating issues. Each city’s experience is somewhat different, but historic redlining and modern environmental inequities almost always go hand in hand. 

So, how to address the issue? In June, the City of Richmond released a draft master plan for guiding growth through It contains a wide range of proposed objectives and actions relating to equity, greening the city, expanding park access, affordable housing, and more. To name just a few: ensuring 100% of Richmonders are within a 10 minute walk of a park by buying new park land, changing zoning to require minimum green space thresholds for development, creating dedicated funding for park maintenance, building parks over highways, and more; expanding access to the local healthy food system through expanding community gardens and other means, especially in low-income areas; expanding green infrastructure through new zoning requirements and tree planting programs; and maintaining existing green space through additional conservation easements in the city.

Envisioning a better, more equitable future is the easy part. The amount of mapped information available today to inform that vision is better than ever before. And the stories and images of community residents and organizations like Groundwork RVA taking on these issues in Richmond are inspiring. 

The challenge is great, however, as the structural issues influencing equity have been in place for so long. It will take substantial changes at many levels — not just city government — and in many fields, including conservation, to create real change. 

The subject is percolating broadly. The Capital Region Land Conservancy recently received a grant from the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond to support the city’s work in identifying opportunities for acquiring private lands for incorporation into the City’s green infrastructure. 

In a similar vein at the state level, the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, established by Governor Ralph Northam, recently released a report touching on some of the same issues. For example, it calls for creating a “Statewide Park Equity Mapper” which would help identify where park access is most needed to address current inequities. It would incorporate spatial data related to race, age, education, poverty, obesity, health factors (such as diabetes and heart disease), distance to local, regional and state park and trails, urban heat islands, and more. And it would be one basis for updating grant manuals for state funding and federal pass through funding related to land conservation to make communities lacking access a funding priority. 

The cost of action to remedy structural racism is high. And the pandemic’s economic effects will exacerbate it. But the cost of inaction is vastly higher. The land conservation community can play a key role, working closely with communities to protect and restore the lands that help remedy these patterns. 

Jonathan L. Doherty 

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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