Thermal inequity in Richmond, VA: The effect of an unjust evolution of the urban landscape on urban heat islands




The urban heat island (UHI) effect is caused by intensive development practices in cities and the diminished presence of green space that results. The evolution of these phenomena has occurred over many decades. In many cities, historic zoning and redlining practices barred Black and minority groups from moving into predominately white areas and obtaining financial resources, a practice that still affects cities today, and has forced these already disadvantaged groups to live in some of the hottest areas. In this study, we used a new dataset on the spatial distribution of temperature during a heat wave in Richmond, Virginia to investigate potential associations between extreme heat and current and historical demographic, socioeconomic, and land use factors. We assessed these data at the census block level to determine if blocks with large differences in temperature also had significant variation in these covariates. The amount of canopy cover, percent impervious surface, and poverty level were all shown to be strong correlates of UHI when analyzed in conjunction with afternoon temperatures. We also found strong associations of historical policies and planning decisions with temperature using data from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab’s “Mapping Inequality” project. Finally, the Church Hill area of the city provided an interesting case study due to recent data suggesting the area’s gentrification. Differences in demographics, socioeconomic factors, and UHI were observed between north and (more gentrified) south Church Hill. Both in Church Hill and in Richmond overall, our research found that areas occupied by people of low socioeconomic status or minority groups disproportionately experienced extreme heat and corresponding impacts on health and quality of life.

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