When Reverend William H. Lamar IV was preaching in Florida, he took his predominantly black congregation outside to publicly display the church’s connection to the community – until it became a health risk due to worsening of heat.
“Better to stay inside and be a little cooler than to go out and be on fire and with no blankets,” recalled Reverend Lamar, now pastor of the African Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
This contrasted with Mr Lamar’s visits to “richer, whiter” neighborhoods where he found people jogging under the shade of lush trees and frequenting parks and other green spaces.
“Our infrastructure continues to create these inequalities that give more to the rich (…) and continue to extract life and treasures from other communities,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The $ 1.2 trillion, 2,702 page infrastructure bill before the US Congress – which passed the Senate last week – aims to help correct such imbalances.
It contains a new “Healthy Streets” program aimed at communities that are often left behind in efforts to alleviate so-called “urban heat islands,” where concrete-laden cityscapes raise temperatures.
Legislation allows states and local governments to apply for grants of up to $ 15 million to deploy “cold”, porous coatings, which reflect heat and facilitate water runoff, and strengthen tree canopy. in disadvantaged areas, among other measures.
“It’s a good start, but it’s nowhere near all we need,” said Reverend Lamar, expressing hope that “federal largesse” could help stimulate further action by governments. local.
Efforts have been underway for some time in cities to reduce the effects of rising heat fueled by climate change.
In California, new buildings must adhere to strict requirements for “cold” or reflective roofs, while San Francisco requires that most reserve part of their roof for solar panels or “green” items like vegetation and gardens – which can also help buildings in other cities meet energy efficiency standards.
Los Angeles started painting some of its streets white years ago in an effort to reflect the heat.
But neighborhoods that benefit from improvements to build their resilience to a warmer climate may end up crowding out the poor as their popularity increases – a process known as “climate gentrification” – while many beneficiaries already live in the city. higher income areas sheltered from the worst effects.
About 18% of Los Angeles’ canopy is concentrated in four neighborhoods – the Tony Pacific Palisades and Brentwood areas, as well as Shadow Hills and Los Feliz – which are home to less than 1% of the city’s population, according to CAPA Strategies, a group data analysis.
And too often, a community is meant to be “improved” just to see speculators come in and raise rents and property values, said Anthony Rogers-Wright of the nonprofit New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
“Then people are either forced to move because they can’t pay new property taxes, or they can’t pay rents anymore,” he said. “The road to bad politics is paved with good intentions. “
The Infrastructure Bill’s “Healthy Streets” program aims to prevent this by requiring applicants to specify how the projects will benefit disadvantaged and low-income communities, where at least 30% of residents live below the poverty line.
Local governments that receive the funds can also use them to conduct “fairness” assessments by mapping canopy gaps, flood-prone locations, heat island hot spots, and the extent to which these risks are occurring. overlap with low income areas.
“You can overcome many generations of structural inequalities, including racial inequalities … by investing in low income areas and moving from dark, impervious surfaces to reflective surfaces,” said Greg Kats, founder and CEO of the Smart Surfaces Coalition, which advocates for such technologies.
Baltimore, Maryland would see a significant return on investment with a city-wide plan involving cool roofs, solar panel installations, reflective sidewalks and more trees, according to a report from Mr. Kats’ group released on last month.
A $ 5 million investment in Madison-Eastend, a low-income neighborhood in eastern Baltimore, would generate a return greater than 11 to 1 through effects such as job creation, he predicted. .
Smart surface policies there would reduce maximum summer temperatures by an average of 8.3 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to an overall reduction of 4.3 F. in central areas of the city, according to the report.
Low-income residents are also expected to enjoy a greater share of the health benefits resulting from reduced air pollution, energy savings on less air conditioning and new jobs, he said. added.
Baltimore City Councilor Mark Conway said the report showed wide adoption of smart surfaces would help “right long-standing environmental injustices.”
Does the economy speak louder?
The new program offers an opportunity to take small steps forward amid broader calls from environmental justice advocates for at least $ 1 trillion in annual federal spending to fight climate change.
“This is a potential time of panacea if we do it right and intentionally,” said Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice for the New York law group.
“We need to make sure that these improvements are done with community buy-in,” he added.
Additional funding for studies to determine where to direct new projects, given the cost of major renovations, would be welcome, said Saleem Chapman, City of Philadelphia Resilience Manager.
He worked on a pilot project to coat streets with coolants in an effort to combat what can represent a maximum temperature difference of 22 ° F between neighborhoods.
“It’s going to be very difficult to scale these projects – we’ve spent two years and we’re probably going to do maybe a mile of real road,” Chapman said.
Rev. Lamar said advocates should advocate for smarter surfaces – and adapt their arguments to focus on the cost savings and expected financial gains if necessary.
“History proves it – that America is driven more by economics than justice,” he said.
This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.