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Segregation of the past is impacting the climate of today

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Posted at 5:44 PM, Jul 29, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. — Duron Chavis is trying to right an environmental wrong in his neighborhood that’s been generations in the making.

In Richmond’s Southside neighborhood, heat radiates from the asphalt and relief is hard to find. For the last five years, Chavis has been building community gardens as a way to rectify that, but he says the way his neighborhood is set up today, was no mistake.

"What we've decided to do and what the work that we enjoy doing is work. To remedy that neglect and that discrimination," Chavis said.

Starting in the 1930s, banks would "redline" nieghborhoods that it determined would be risky to give out loans to. This practice had a lot to do with race, as the main factor in determing which neighborhood would be redlined was whether or not the majority of its population was Black.

Southside is one of the neighborhoods that was redlined.

This isn’t just a Richmond problem, 200 American cities had neighborhoods that were redlined. Today, the majority of those redlined neighborhoods are primarily Black, Latino, and low-income.

According to research done at the nearby University of Richmond, formerly redlined neighborhoods are on average five degrees hotter and can be up to 20 degrees hotter than neighborhoods that weren’t.

Because of a lack of investments over decades, formerly redlined neighborhoods have less parks and trees and more asphalt and buildings - leaving folks who live there more susceptible to heat-related illness and impacts of climate change. This is called the Urban Heat Island effect.

"What does that say when the neighborhood that you lived in, all the people who look like you and there's all this, like, all this abandoned property, all of this just willful, benign neglect," said Chavis. "But then you go across the bridge onto another side of town and you see just all of the things and but none of those folks look like you. I think that that does something to the consciousness of a people."

A few streets over from Broad Rock, hidden behind kudzu and chain link, is a dirt path that will one day soon lead to a brand new green space.

"It's part of a realization of how past actions have led to current realities," said Ryan Rinn, the business services manager from Richmond's Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities.

When the city of Richmond saw the data on the heat and green space disparity, they put together a team and made it their mission to make sure everyone is within a 10-minute walk of a park.

"What I think more green space coming into the Southside will show is that we value the people that live here and we want people to enjoy the space right outside their front door," said Javonne Bowles, a community advocate with Virgina Community Voice.

Bowles is a part of the on-the-park initiative, making sure the Southside has a voice in its creation. She says while there’s excitement around the project, the skepticism of some neighbors can’t be ignored.

"There has been a lot of broken promises, particularly in the Eighth and the Ninth District of South Richmond," she said.

"However, a lot of people are also grateful for the opportunity for people to see, again, that there is something beautiful already right here in Southside of Richmond that we can take advantage of," Bowles continued.

Addressing systemic wrongs that were put in motion generations ago takes time, but it also takes care and while neighbors like Chavis put in the work, he also hopes the care he and others put into these spaces catches on.

"Spaces like this create the common ground for folks to love up on each other, you know, build relationships with each other, and do something for each other that I don't feel like any other space of social justice allows us to do," he said.