Redlining made climate change worse in Kansas City, Kansas, but new generations are fighting back
More residents of northeast Kansas City, Kansas, are seeing the connection between the factories in their neighborhoods and their own health problems. As one activist puts it, "People see their lives are getting harder and that alone is evidence that they want to do something about it."
Hazel Davis, a 69-year-old Black woman, has been a lifelong resident of Northeast Kansas City, Kansas. Her house sits just one block from the on-ramp to Interstate 635, the connector between I-35 and I-29. Tens of thousands of trucks travel the short strip of interstate daily.
The Fairfax Trafficway, the west boundary of the Fairfax Industrial area, is a few miles away. The district is home not only to a General Motors Assembly Plant but also the site where three pipeline companies make 95% of the unleaded and diesel fuel for the Kansas City area and 100% of the jet fuel, according to the area website.
“It’s very transparent,” Davis says, referring to the geography of her neighborhood, nestled between the busy highway and industrial park. “If you drive through this area and go to the west area of Wyandotte County, it just speaks for itself.”
Davis has acclimated to the traffic noise. She hasn’t noticed any foul factory odor in the air. In fact, she says, she’s never really thought about the quality of the air or water in her northeast Wyandotte County neighborhood.
What came as a revelation to Davis is the result of a social justice movement that has gained steam over the last decade. Activists and academics have documented how Black and brown communities are at significantly higher risk for respiratory, cardiovascular and other diseases because their communities are often geographically closer to environments thick with toxic particles, smog, vehicle fumes, oil smoke and construction dust.
These same communities are less likely to be monitored for violations of clean water regulations.
“Without being able to build wealth or own a home, with the systemic, inequitable power dynamic, we’re really thinking about exacerbations of climate change in an already inequitable distribution of environmental hazards,” says Jaime Madrigano, associate professor of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and a researcher at the Rand Corporation.
Partnering with grassroots organizations dedicated to revitalizing and creating sustainable neighborhoods, Madrigano and others are using data and maps to illustrate that disinvestment in communities leaves them vulnerable to the disproportionately negative effects of global warming and is directly tied to historic racist housing and development strategies.
Hazel Davis and a dozen or so others from her community have been attending workshops sponsored by the Groundwork Northeast Revitalization Group, part of the national network with which academics like Madrigano and other scientists have been working.
What Davis has learned is that her neighborhood streets have less tree cover and green spaces, more concrete and asphalt, and older decaying infrastructure than surrounding neighborhoods.
Now, the previously abstract ideas about climate change she hears on the news are personal.
“The environment has problems with the, what is it, the ozone and all that. But I think this is something different,” Davis says. “I think this is just some neglect of a community and they’re not really addressing it the way they should be addressing these problems that have taken place.”
Connecting the dots
On a cloudless spring morning in Jersey Creek Park in Northeast Kansas City, Kansas, Ben Carpenter is leaning over the hood of his car, looking at a small map of Wyandotte County.
A white, boyish 31-year-old, the former AmeriCorps volunteer is originally from Rochester, New York.
He points out how this whole section of the county is red. It reflects the area covered by what’s called a combined sewer system, an aging underground infrastructure that mixes rainwater and household sewage. The dirty water flows out of pipes right into Jersey Creek.
Carpenter runs his index finger along a jagged diagonal line marking the openings for the pipes. He says the length of the line begins and ends just inside the boundaries of the red area of Northeast Wyandotte County.
“These purple squares are outfalls … or where the combined sewer system outflows in extreme weather events,” he says. “So you see it just basically traces Jersey Creek.”
A pale green that covers the rest of Wyandotte County indicates a newer, separated system.
The red area with the purple squares also almost directly lines up with the part of the county that, in the middle of the 20th century, experienced "redlining" — the practice in which banks refused to lend money to homebuyers in communities of color, considering them to be risky investments.
The practice isolated people of color and accelerated disinvestment in neighborhoods. And today, the negative consequences of climate change are significantly worse in communities such as Argentine, Armourdale and the Fairfax Industrial District than in wealthier neighborhoods in the western part of Wyandotte County.
Carpenter and other outreach workers have been talking with residents like Davis to make climate science more accessible.
“The word climate itself is very coded — pretty upper middle class, pretty white, typically male,” Carpenter says. “Those groups formed the original narrative around climate action, which tended to reflect a narrow band of perspective and experience, which is alienating to a lot of folks.”
With maps like the one he is looking at, Carpenter says organizers try to connect the dots between discriminatory lending and development to the built environment, like fewer shade trees and more asphalt and concrete, which can raise the temperature in urban communities as much as 10 degrees.
This doesn’t just increase utility bills. It can be lethal.
Carpenter says to make these connections, they need to meet people where they are.
“Not starting from the 30,000-foot view,” he explains. “But saying, ‘This is climate change, climate change affects heat, heat affects air quality, air quality affects your lungs.’ Saying, ‘OK, how are your asthma rates? Who has heart disease?’ Because, like, the residents know there are problems.”
Within spitting distance of Jersey Creek Park is the Kansas City, Kansas, Housing Authority.
In the neat, grassy interior surrounded by a public housing high rise and multifamily townhomes, Richard Mabion, 76, has been working with older residents to grow food since 2015.
“The purpose is to create a resident-operated garden,” he says. “This is what you call an environmental engagement approach that links climate to practices beneficial to the people.”
As Mabion walks around the perimeter of wood-framed beds with thriving onions, potatoes and greens, he notes home-grown food reduces what residents spend on groceries.
At the same time, Mabion, a climate activist for 40 years, says he’s able to talk to people about the impact on reducing carbon emissions of these vegetables and newly planted fruit trees.
“Trees absorb carbon and filter the air,” he notes. And residents don’t have to buy vegetables that have been trucked or flown from the far reaches of the country or globe.
Like Carpenter’s workshops, Mabion says the gardens connect climate action to people’s daily lives, which are consumed with issues that feel like more immediate concerns.
“Paying rent. Paying utilities. Maintaining the safety of your children and your family,” Mabion says.
“My missus and I found ourselves in a lockdown situation in our house, two days ago, because some people were doing some shooting,” he says. “You realize those are the kind of things people in low-income communities have on their mind.”
There is another aspect to the Housing Authority gardens that excites Mabion.
Students from Donnelly College’s environmental ethics class have spent the spring nurturing these vegetable gardens and fruit trees for a class in environmental ethics.
Mabion sees this intergenerational partnership as essential to sustaining authentic community involvement.
Mabion is a disciple of Michael Harrington, the author of the 1962 book "The Other America." Widely considered to be the catalyst for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Harrington's book argued there were two Americas defined by race.
Mabion believes we still have “another America,” in which the impact of climate change is one of the latest challenges from the legacy of racism.
This injustice needs to be addressed from the ground up, he says, and involve the next generation.
“We’re working with them,” he says. “We want to put them in a position to keep this going. That’s climate conscious building, that’s what this is about.”
“Just because people are not saying ‘climate,’ just because they’re not saying, ‘I want a solar panel on my home,’ doesn’t mean they’re not talking about the effect this entire world getting hotter has on them.”Laela Zaidi
Other grassroots activists believe sustainable change will only come about by addressing the political system.
Sunrise Movement Kansas City is part of a national organization that identifies itself as the “Climate Revolution.” Members, mostly young people, advocate for the Green New Deal, the non-binding Congressional resolution that seeks to end the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels by switching to clean energy. Included is a jobs component, promising a new economy based on jobs in the clean energy industry.
Members talk at rallies and meetings across the metro about utilities they say put profits over people by refusing to embrace renewable energy.
Laela Zaidi, a leader of SunriseKC, bristles when she hears some people say Black and brown communities are not embracing climate mitigation efforts.
“Just because people are not saying ‘climate,’ just because they’re not saying, ‘I want a solar panel on my home,’ doesn’t mean they’re not talking about the effect this entire world getting hotter has on them,” she says.
“Where we would push back is that there is not a disconnect. People see their lives are getting harder and that alone is evidence that they want to do something about it. And many of them are powerless to do anything about it because the system has given them so few choices.”
This story is part of a series on climate change in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include Kansas City PBS/Flatland, KCUR 89.3, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News, The Kansas City Beacon and American Public Square.