Most things are made, but for whom?

Photo courtesy of National Archives

People typically accept things as they are. When we see a road, a home, a park, a restroom, we don’t wonder why they’re there—or think about why they’re not. This is particularly true when we lack the cultural and historical knowledge of oppression embedded in our lives to ask why. 

Looking deeper, nearly everything around us has been set up where and how they are. Planners, politicians, and policies put them there and incentivized what followed—be it tourism, traffic jams, housing, pollution, or even geo-specific demographics. The key is who put them there for whom and why. By asking these questions, we soon see how racism, health, and land use rely on each other to shape our current world and perpetuate oppression.

Via The Sierra Club’s Equity Edition newsletter

America uses—and legally validates—housing and land ownership as the required and most effective ingredient of upward mobilization, net worth, wealth, and socio-economic class. Indeed, our founders defined freedom, citizenship, and prosperity through land ownership in Articles 4, 5 and 14. But we can’t ignore who the founders decided 1) could have land1 2) could be a citizen with rights 3) could vote2 4) could own any property) and 5) who was property.

Municipal and federal governments, and private sectors each codify these foundations even deeper.

HOUSING

In 1911, Harland Bartholomew used the census to determine where Black people lived, or would live, for a city study. That city used the study to designate those places as industrial use or “risky.” The nation replicated such designations, and they largely remains today. This practice became a major, racist mechanism called redlining. Redlining covers racially-explicit mapping, leasing and permitting from banks, insurance, real estate, and the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) on the basis of “risk.” Redlining named what or whom lowered property values.

Redlining informed zoning. Zoning preserves most land for exclusionary, expensive, energy-inefficient homes getting bigger and bigger while housing the least people. Even in Seattle, our densest city, 75% of the land bans apartments. Zoning restricts where housing can go. It informs and gatekeeps which areas are for whom.

There are also private house deeds through racially restrictive covenants, which the Federal Housing Association refused to enforce banning until 1950–decades after these deeds’ unconstitutional rulings. Even now, banks still use predatory loans, like “subprime” loans, targeting people of color while quickly and dramatically increasing rates.

Systemic racism also operates through school district borders, tied to the financial support of the foundationally-segregated housing inside their boundaries. This perpetuates wealth gaps and school disparities.

It is abundantly clear, the ramifications of our past reverberate still. A 2018 study showed how redlining still matches our socio-economic and racial segregation across neighborhoods. Nearly 75% of HOLC’s “high-risk” or “hazardous” areas are low-to-moderate income today. Meanwhile, 64% of the “hazardous” areas remain predominantly communities of color (this includes Asian American Pacific Islanders, or AAPI). In Seattle3, for example, a whopping 99.95% of the redlining-era’s “best” housing areas are moderate-to-upper income, while 98.41% of the “best”-rated housing areas remain white. The list goes on, and on, and on. Racism is in everything. It built everything.

The government caused segregation. The government still perpetuates segregation. It was and is a civil rights violation left unaddressed from the Civil Rights Era.

TRANSPORTATION

Housing isn’t the only racist land use tool. Freeways were explicitly placed where they are to disrupt communities of color in the name of “blight”—an adjective used by city planners and architects to describe a form of ‘urban decay’ often determined by association of people of color and run-down housing. In reality, what caused “blight” was deliberate lack of federal and municipal investment into those communities’ neighborhoods in the first place. Not to mention slum lords. This was, and still is, a term used across Canada and the US. One can even find the word still defined in Washington State law. For example, Interstate-5 runs through the middle of Seattle’s Chinatown International District because of its previous, majority-Black and AAPI demographics. In Spokane, the same happened to majority-Indigenous communities with both freeways and railroads. Many Indigenous planners and leaders know the term “checkerboard”–a way of describing when reservations and Indigenous land has random blocks in between that’s not Native land on a map, like Spokane’s and Muckleshoot’s. This is, largely, thanks to railroads cutting through, and taking, federally-designated Indigenous land.

Zoning informs racist housing and transportation, too. It places most job-center housing on polluting arterials and causes sprawl—building more homes horizontally instead of vertically. Sprawling clear-cuts forests to make room for cul-de-sacs. The more we price people out, the more we sprawl, the further commutes become. This raises greenhouse gas emissions because there’s less transportation options outside of the car (despite bus ridership being predominantly people of color and low-income in most states).

LAND USE AND PUBLIC HEALTH

From housing to transportation, where we live determines how much pollution we breathe. It’s no coincidence people of color breathe in the most toxinsPeople of color are disproportionately more likely to live near industrial land, freeways, and fossil fuel projects due to combined housing, transportation, and zoning laws. Our land use actively puts people of color at risk. Our land use forces people of color to have shorter lives. This is true across the nation and in Washington State.

Zoning doesn’t just inform transportation emissions, but job accesseconomic opportunity, and how much money people spend getting to work, too.

It all works together: Housing, higher costs in energy from outdated housing, predatory loans, lack of green space near people of color, transportation, pay gaps, and disproportionately higher health risks and costs because of the disproportionate impacts of pollution and the climate crisis. Now, add COVID-19. The pandemic and the climate crisis have disproportionate impacts for the same reason: systemic racism. So COVID-19 does, too, because it attacks our lungs.

Land use is irrefutably an environmental issue hitting people of color hardest.

We are entrenched in deeply complex systems rooted in racism and criminalizing the poor. These systems don’t want us to know how they work, but it’s our job to keep asking. It is our job to listen when people tell us how they’re harmed. It is our job to investigate in and outside of ourselves.

I hope you start questioning the things you never thought to. And, when you find the disgusting answers to for whom, why, where, and how, you seek to change it all under the leadership of the most impacted. We must de-center ourselves, as white people, because everything built around us was already created for us, with us in mind, and by us through the exploitation of Black and Indigenous labor that built everything in the US and worldwide.


1. Land already belonging to Indigenous peoples

2. Oftentimes, racism looks like who can vote. People who still cannot vote: immigrants, even if documented, people with felony charges, incarcerated people regardless of charges—which disproportionately affects Black people—and folks living in states with active obstructions to voting access, most often affecting majority-minority areas.

3.  Forgive me for the Seattle focus, analysis and documents are more readily available for and tend to focus on metropolitan hubs. Here’s an interactive redlining origins map that includes Spokane and Tacoma, though!

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