Racial Disparities in Urban City Planning: “Environmental Racism”

a drawing of a city with redlining

By Zill Patel

Illustration by Rhea Rasquinha



What do Flint, Michigan and Centreville, Illinois have in common? Both are examples of cities with significant proportions of people of color (POC) with major environmental crises that have affected the health of their residents. From the lead poisoning in Flint’s water to raw sewage backing up into homes in Centreville, all of these are examples of “environmental racism”, a term defined by the intentional placing of polluting and waste facilities in communities that are disproportionately made up of POC.1  Today, many studies conducted in these areas show that these communities have disproportionately been victims of hazardous pollutants, causing a plethora of health issues. However, the impact of urban planning on these communities does not stop here. 

Another term, “geographic racism,” has been coined to encompass the observation that individuals who live in low-income neighborhoods (predominantly POC) have minimal access to parks, grocery stores, and other public structures that are key to healthy living. This access issue, in conjunction with the pre-existing issues of a lack of access to healthcare and the environmental racism described above, has caused huge health disparities for these neighborhoods. 

Key findings in the fields of environmental racism, urban planning, and climate change will be examined to demonstrate the scope of this issue. This will be followed by demonstrating how the negative health impacts of these systemic issues remain unresolved due to inadequate and unaffordable access to healthcare. 


Environmental Racism 

Environmental racism has manifested itself in multiple ways across the US, resulting in detrimental effects. Dorceta Taylor, author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility, states that fines resulting from violations of environmental laws tend to be lower in communities of color, making it cheaper for corporations to pollute in those communities and thus resulting in a disproportional buildup of pollution.2 These trends have historical implications dating back to the early 1900s, when communities were being redlined and segregated from the white population at the time. While redlining was banned in 1968, the impacts of these housing practices are still felt today.3 

In a 2001 study that examined whether or not minorities moved into communities with toxic facilities in Los Angeles, researchers found that demographic variables mattered in “future sitings” of treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs), leading to the conclusion that “minorities attract TSDFs but TSDFs do not generally attract minorities.”4 This dispels a popular belief : a high correlation between TSDF sites being in locations of minority neighborhoods is because POC were choosing to move to TSDF sites due to the low property value in those areas. The same trends are seen two decades later; in a 2022 study, researchers determined that previously redlined neighborhoods had nearly twice the density of oil and gas wells.5 These findings add to the already extensive amount of literature that all draw similar conclusions: there is a historical practice of corporations targeting marginalized communities as sites of toxic waste disposal. These practices are rooted in racism and still carry heavy impacts today, especially regarding the health of residents in these communities. 

Numerous studies have investigated the association between residing in polluted areas and the increased risk of developing lung disease, cancer, and other ailments.6 Therefore, it is plausible that individuals in marginalized communities, where the likelihood of exposure to these pollutants is higher, will exhibit higher rates of these diseases. Furthermore, some studies exemplify how living in industrialized areas also negatively impacts mental health. Authors of a 2005 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour found that due to the negative perception of industrial activity as a health threat or indicator of neighborhood disorder, living in these areas is psychologically harmful.7 This is also supported by a 2007 study from Social Science Research showing that perceived and objective exposure are significant predictors of both psychical and psychological well-being.8 

Environmental racism has had long-lasting effects on the structure of American cities today. Historical segregation, decades-long practices of disposing toxic waste near these communities, and the lack of substantial government action to protect residents of these areas leave residents of these areas reeling with negative health repercussions. Without the financial means to move away from these areas, low-income families are stuck in a cycle that prevents them from escaping the hazardous environment that surrounds them. 


Systemic Racism in Urban Planning (Geographic Racism) 

Low-income neighborhoods face further disparities when there is a lack of access to healthy foods, parks, gyms, and other aspects of a neighborhood that promote good health. There is plenty of recent research that shows neighborhood design plays a big role in the health of its residents, shedding light on the issue that there is an unequal distribution of resources between high- and low-income residential areas. Low-income neighborhoods do not often have a built environment that promotes health which contributes to public health issues like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure in low-income areas.9  In a 2012 study, researchers reviewed literature that found that low-income neighborhoods are offered greater volumes of food sources that promote unhealthy eating such as fast food outlets and convenience stores as opposed to grocery stores where healthy foods can be purchased. The researchers found that the impacts of intentionally poor neighborhood design have led to residents facing substantial challenges in making healthy dietary and exercise choices to maintain healthy body weights.10

In a 2014 study, researchers studied the impact of disparities in community recreation facilities and programs in the form of a meta-analysis literature review.11 While there are inconsistencies in whether or not there are fewer recreational facilities in low-income neighborhoods, all of the study results agree that ratings and usage for these facilities are much lower in low-income neighborhoods. The researchers found that the conditions of facilities and amenities were related to neighborhood income and that the impact of these poor facilities (leading to the theorized perception of unsafety of these facilities) could potentially be the reason for their low use. While there are few details on the lack of recreational facilities (gyms/parks/etc), the conclusion from many of these studies is the same: disparities in recreational activities contribute to inactivity among low-income communities. These disparities can cause generational health issues.12 Children who live in these areas do not get healthy foods or the physical activity that is crucial to their development. Adults also lack these basic nutritional needs. The vicious cycle of unhealthy eating which is perpetuated by the disproportionate allocation of food sources, accompanied by the lack of promotion for physical exercise is a public health issue that introduces a burden of disease that can be felt for generations. 


New Challenges: Climate Change 

As climate change has caused global temperatures to rise in the past decades13, the structural inequalities present in minority communities continue to be a disadvantage. Some of the impacts are already being observed today. Studies have found that the racist redlining housing practices from the 1930s are linked to neighborhoods having increased temperatures today.14 In a study of 108 American cities conducted in 2022, researchers found that a vast majority of residents who live in formerly redlined neighborhoods experience significantly hotter temperatures, with some cities experiencing an increase of nearly 13 degrees. This is likely due to the lack of green spaces and increased amount of heat-absorbing concrete/asphalt surfaces in these neighborhoods.15 As the prevalence of heat waves is increasing, extreme heat will affect these areas much more significantly. Residents of these communities, as stated, are predominantly low-income minority individuals. Currently, there has been a “dramatic [increase] in the rates of emergency calls during dangerous heat waves” and “low-income patients in the city’s hot spots visited the hospital more.”9

Additionally, climate change will inevitably impact water resources, causing a more downstream impact. Several low-income areas may not have the infrastructure to support the heavier and longer rains contributing to flooding along with rising sea levels, all characteristics of climate change.16 This will result in these areas being more susceptible to water quality issues since many of them already house toxic pollutants in their air and water.17 

Climate change only exacerbates the pre-existing issue of poor infrastructure in these communities. As the negative impacts from climate change have already been observed in neighborhoods that were victim to racist housing practices from the 1900s, we will only see these negative impacts increase in the future as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise while little to nothing is being done to resolve the present disparities. 


Lack of Accessibility to Health Care 

As a result of these systemic issues discussed above, residents of minority and low-income communities often carry a higher burden of disease. Exacerbating this issue, they lack the accessibility to healthcare. A 2013 study found that racial and ethnic compositions of communities affect healthcare utilization, which is caused by the resources that members of these communities lack. They hypothesize that “racial and ethnic composition of zip codes is a proxy for the impact of segregation on the availability of healthcare resources” and that there are trends that predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods have lower availability of healthcare resources compared to predominantly white neighborhoods.18 This, coupled with the low rates of health insurance, leads to residents not being able to receive the basic healthcare they need. While the creation of free clinics has mitigated some of these negative impacts, barriers to care beyond lack of insurance still prevent individuals from utilizing these resources. Affordable/free healthcare is not enough to ensure attendance at clinics because of barriers of care such as transportation and other unique-to-the-patient barriers in care.19 Some recommendations to overcome these barriers are taking the burden off of patients and families and coming up with ways that can bring healthcare to the homes of these patients. Overall, there are increased efforts currently to close the bridge of healthcare accessibility but even so, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There needs to be increased efforts to continue to eliminate these barriers so that individuals in these areas can get the care they need. 



These are all systematic issues that have been present for years in the US. Decades of pollution stemming from the use of these areas as disposal sites for toxic waste, coupled with intentionally poor neighborhood design that fails to promote a healthy lifestyle, have had and will continue to impact generations of residents in these areas, especially with the threat of climate change looming. That being said, some governmental policies are attempting to reverse some of the damage done by harmful practices in these neighborhoods. For example, the “Justice40 Initiative” aims to “provide 40 percent of the overall benefits of Federal investments relating to climate change, clean energy, and other areas to disadvantaged communities who are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”20 However, states have been pushing back against several federal initiatives that combat environmental racism and against initiatives that decrease this overbearing burden of pollution for communities of color; some states redefine what counts as discrimination as “decisions by federal funding recipients that systematically harm people of color [could] be fine, as long as there was no explicitly racist intent behind it.21 Ideologies like this prevent action to improve the quality of life in these communities in several states around the nation. 

While these issues are beginning to get addressed at the policy level, there is still a substantial amount of work that needs to be done and several challenges that disrupt the implementation of these issues. In addition to the general climate policy and health policy that the entire nation needs, these predominantly POC neighborhoods targeted by poor urban planning specifically need to be the focal point of these policies to undo the generational damage that was done.



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