Systemic Racism’s Effects On Urban Ecology
Human behavior shapes the ecology of cities, and social inequalities such as racism affect not just humans but also plants, animals, and the environment. This research paper explores some of the ways that systemic racism and classism (especially in North America) have caused environmental injustices.
In general, the authors note that wealthier neighborhoods tend to have more biodiversity, especially plant biodiversity. They also feature more vegetation and tree cover. Parks in wealthier areas often have older trees and vegetation that is better at supporting biodiversity. This correlation is called “the luxury effect,” and it extends to animal communities. For example, richer neighborhoods tend to have more abundant and species-rich bird communities. Some studies suggest that wealthier neighborhoods may also have more species-rich communities of other animals. The luxury effect is stronger in locations that are arid, highly urbanized, have lost a lot of vegetation, or have high wealth inequality.
Individual behavior drives some of the luxury effect. Wealthier homeowners tend to have more abundant and diverse flowering plants and trees in their yards, while low-income homeowners tend to have less diverse yards with a higher proportion of nonnative species. However, wealthier neighborhoods also have better-funded park systems.
Beyond vegetation, the authors describe how low-income neighborhoods typically feature worse environmental conditions than wealthy neighborhoods in other ways. For example, if a neighborhood doesn’t have much tree and vegetation cover, it will be hotter and its residents will be more vulnerable to heat-related diseases. Furthermore, low-income neighborhoods usually have more polluted air.
The luxury effect doesn’t always hold. Cultural norms and city policies affect whether wealthier neighborhoods are more biodiverse. If high-income residents have intensively managed lawns with no species other than turfgrasses, their neighborhoods will be less biodiverse. Highly-built downtown areas, common within wealthy communities, often have fewer bird species than less dense areas.
In many cases, the racial composition of neighborhoods is a better predictor of environmental conditions than wealth. For example, air pollution, temperature, and vegetation cover are often more correlated with a neighborhood’s racial demographics than with its wealth. According to the authors, in the U.S., this is a residual effect of ongoing racism and racial segregation. For example, in the middle of the twentieth century, banks refused home loans to Black residents in specific communities, restricting their ability to live beyond what were called “redlined” districts. Today, formerly redlined areas have less tree and vegetation cover. These areas are also farther from environmental amenities, such as access to clean air, natural bodies of water, and other benefits.
Researchers are only beginning to study the effects of structural racism on urban ecology. In the U.S., BIPGM people often live grouped together in neighborhoods. Researchers expect that patterns of species colonization and extinction will vary depending on historical and present-day patterns of segregation. Heat, pollutants, vegetation cover, and other factors linked to the racial composition of a neighborhood also affect the ecology of that neighborhood.
Structural racism may also affect how animals evolve. As the paper notes, neighborhoods with many marginalized community members tend to have more highways (which are difficult for animals to cross) and more fragmented green spaces. Therefore, species in those neighborhoods may experience more genetic drift. Pollution exposure may also cause more mutations. Researchers haven’t explored these topics fully, so it’s hard to know how structural racism fully affects evolutionary processes.
Fighting racism improves the environment. To support the shift toward equitable environmental access, advocates should prioritize issues like better public transportation, more economic opportunities, affordable housing, healthcare access, voting rights, and helping BIPGM residents buy homes. Finally, programs that improve infrastructure and access to green spaces should focus on the marginalized communities that need it most.