The author of this piece was a winner in the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s Future Leaders in Policy Competition. The competition challenged students from SUNY’s campuses to think about the policy implications of their research. They pitched policy proposals, based on their expertise, to New York State policymakers. The winners were invited to publish a blog based on their proposal.
Historically redlined neighborhoods are concentrated by poverty, and disproportionately the home to people of color. These neighborhoods are the result of decades of exclusionary planning and zoning practices and policies. Scholars have documented and residents have long understood that those neighborhoods face inequities with respect to affordable and quality housing, transportation, education, fresh and nutritious food, and access to healthcare and other social services. Only more recently has the trauma that is brought about because of these neighborhood inequalities been considered.
As an urban planner by trade, I am aware of the localized systemic barriers that Black communities face day-to-day. During my tenure as a doctoral student at Binghamton University, my research focused specifically on the lived experiences of Black mothers who have lost a child to neighborhood violence and the community factors that contributed to their loss and their ability to be resilient. The findings from my research reflected the need for equitable neighborhoods that are safe and socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. In order to achieve these goals, however, community planning policies must work to target the years of systemic racism and inequities that created them. In this blog post, I will discuss the origins and consequences of land use induced displacement, as well as the findings of my doctoral research and practitioner work with respect to policies that protect marginalized communities, and offer a policy recommendation to address the gaps and barriers in existing land use policy.
Impacts of Urban Renewal and Gentrification
The origins of redlining and urban renewal in the United States began as early as 1930. The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation deemed particular neighborhoods, and their “undesirable” inhabitants, as “hazardous” refusing mortgage requests by families of color. In addition, The federal urban renewal program administered by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development granted power to local municipalities to clear blighted and undesirable areas of the city. The federal government provided local governments with the necessary funding to seize homes and businesses by eminent domain, displacing residents—predominantly families of color—into the most unappealing areas of the inner city. This program was responsible for funding the construction of hundreds of miles of interstate roadways through historically Black neighborhoods between 1949 and 1974. This displacement and development of infrastructure continued to isolate communities of color from essential services and was detrimental to the well-being of Black families for generations to come. Today, we can witness how historically disinvested neighborhoods directly impact one’s overall quality of life and life expectancy.
My Research: Trauma among Women in Black Communities
My doctoral research considers how Black women living in areas with high levels of poverty experience traumas within segregated neighborhoods. In order to better understand this, I interviewed Black mothers living in segregated neighborhoods across New York State that had lost at least one child due to violence.
There is an overrepresentation of the Black community when it comes to death by homicide. In 2020, Black people accounted for only 12.4 percent of the population in the United States, however, that same year, of 17,754 of the homicides that occurred within the United States, 55 percent of the victims were Black; 47.7 percent being Black men and 8.1 percent Black women. More specifically, reports show that Black men and women are the most vulnerable among racial and ethnic groups to death by way of firearm. This statistic is reflected in my current research, being that many mothers have lost a child/multiple children due to shootings. These statistics suggest that Black parents are the true experts on gun violence, and should prompt urbanists and researchers alike to study how gun violence disproportionately affects vulnerable populations. These personal accounts examined within my research were able to connect neighborhood failures that contributed to the death of their child, or sometimes children, and their ability or the lack thereof to thrive afterwards.
While Black men also experience trauma after losing a child to violence, I wanted my research to address the unique experiences of Black women in relation to their positionality. Intersectionality, a theory coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, explains that marginalized communities have multiple identities that they must function in, simultaneously. These various individualities: race, sexuality, gender, and physical ability, determine the type of relationship and experiences that one may have with society and its various institutions. When considering their relation to place, Black women are more vulnerable to poor health outcomes than their counterparts, including Black men, as they experience “double jeopardy” navigating racism and sexism, simultaneously.
The existing policies and practices surrounding the built environment have not adequately taken vulnerable populations and their relationship with place into consideration.
Experiencing the loss of a child due to violence may directly impact one’s own ability to thrive and be resilient. Moreover, many people may not readily recognize the signs and symptoms of being traumatized. In order to understand how the violent loss of a child may contribute to trauma in and be experienced by Black mothers, I administered the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Civilian Checklist (PCL-C). This assessment is not a diagnostic test, but rather allowed the mothers to rate their symptoms that correspond to the key symptoms of PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event. The participants answers were then scored for an overall severity score which I would give them at their request. The findings of administering this checklist were that all the participants scored highly on the checklist, indicating that they shared similar symptoms of those diagnosed with PTSD. None of the women were actively seeking mental and emotional health services, because prior to the exam, they did not believe that they were suffering from trauma. These findings speak to the possibility of high rates of undiagnosed trauma within Black communities. Consequently, rather than receiving treatment that supports their further resiliency, those with trauma may end up relying on their own methods of coping.
- Due to a lack of economic and employment opportunities, youth view risky behavior and illegal behaviors as their only option to provide for and protect themselves and their families.
Intergenerational poverty, systemic racism, a lack of necessary job skills, as well as a lack of access, may all contribute to higher rates of unemployment in marginalized communities. In turn, lack of opportunities, resources, and feelings of disdain and helplessness can contribute to crime within Black neighborhoods. Many communities across New York State, and the United States as a whole, benefit from grassroots organizations that provide services, such as job readiness, violence prevention, and transportation.
- Black women are losing their children to street violence at increased rates.
While my research focuses on low-income, historically redlined communities, other research has shown that regardless of socioeconomic status, Black communities as a whole are facing gun violence at higher rates than their counterparts. As mothers continue to lose their children, they are taking on lead advocacy roles in their own communities, finding a sense of purpose in their own trauma, ultimately allowing them to be resilient.
- Mothers living in segregated neighborhoods exhibited severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as indicated by the PCL-C.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is diagnosed after one has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. Trauma was present in my research participants by avoiding particular streets, having physical reactions to seeing family members or friends of those involved in their children’s homicide, the inability to watch certain television shows that involved hospital settings, and struggling to show affection to other children out of fear of losing them. Unaddressed community trauma may sometimes take form in retaliatory violence, as well as unhealthy coping in the form of isolation, or drug and alcohol abuse.
- The legacy of segregation continues to be experienced by the Black community as structural violence and trauma. From a policy standpoint, this should be viewed as an environmental concern.
The term environmental racism was first used by Dr. Benjamin Chavis, author of the landmark 1987 report “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” and further defined by Robert Bullard in his seminal work “Dumping in Dixie” as “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.” It is a term used to describe the acts of violence against marginalized communities due to the built environment. This concept in practice is underpinned by the idea that minority communities are either disposable or inherently resilient enough to suffer such consequences of the built environment. As discussed above, scholars have long established the historically rooted relationship between race and space, and we further know that there are relationships between space and well-being. One’s zip code and census tract are key indicators of their physical well-being and overall life expectancy.
The existing policies and practices surrounding the built environment have not adequately taken vulnerable populations and their relationship with place into consideration. Vulnerability increases based on the intersections of your identity and interaction with various institutions. Black women, specifically, have unique experiences with these infrastructures, prompting implications for future policy and research with respect to how the built environment disproportionately contributes to mental, physical, and emotional health disparities.
The goal of the Environmental justice movement is to ensure that everyone, regardless of their environment, race, or social status, is protected from the environmental hazards including violence and trauma that come from the built environment. Historically segregated neighborhoods that are concentrated by poverty are more likely to be exposed to hazardous environmental impacts that stem from zoning-regulated noxious uses. Environmental justice also refers to just and equitable infrastructure that provides services that are vital for one’s well-being, such as efficient transportation, roads and sidewalks, access to fresh and nutritious food, access to clean water, and safe housing. These issues are directly associated with increases in crime and violence.
Existing Policies, Proposals, and Recommendations
Since the enactment of the urban renewal policies of the mid-twentieth century, New York State has implemented significant environmental protections for communities with respect to planning and development. For example, the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, passed in 1975, requires State and local agencies to follow an evaluative procedure (known as SEQR, and pronounced seek-er) when making discretionary decisions about potential projects. It includes a preliminary review by agencies “to balance the environmental impacts with social and economic factors,” and must reflect if there is the possibility of physical and environmentally hazardous impacts to the surrounding community prior to the start of any project or development.
If the implications of the SEQR suggest that the project may have significant cumulative environmental impacts, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) may be triggered, requiring project directors to take an in-depth assessment of potential hazards and offer reasonable alternatives. Such EISs are also conducted when a review identifies a potential environmental justice area in the project site, in which case there are further potential requirements stipulated under SEQR.
Recent legislative proposals aim to address environmental racism and racial inequities related to certain policy and planning practices. New York State Senate bill S4745 would require an impact statement to determine if criminal justice bills in the legislature are likely to create or exacerbate disparate outcomes among people of different races or ethnicities. Another bill, S8830, which was passed by both houses of the state legislature this year, would require an EIS for the siting of environmental facilities and an existing burden report with respect to disadvantaged communities.
“Disadvantaged communities” means communities that bear burdens of negative public health effects, environmental pollution, impacts of climate change, and possess certain socioeconomic criteria, or comprise high concentrations of low- and moderate-income households, as identified pursuant to section 75-0111 of this article.
There are 45 criteria established by New York State to identify a Disadvantaged Community under the Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act. It further requires the consideration of “whether the action may cause or increase a disproportionate or inequitable pollution burden on those communities” in the impact statement in order to consider existing issues of environmental justice and the cumulative burdens of pollution in marginalized communities. While there are not currently equity assessments to address the broader range of policy and planning practices in Black communities, there are related bills being passed in New York State that focus on the protection of particular services to underserved communities. Senate Bill S1451A, which was enacted in December 2021, requires a health equity assessment to be filed with an application for construction or change to a hospital or health related service. This law provides protections to marginalized groups such as low income, communities of color, and the LGBTQ+ community, and others who are medically underserved.
While New York State is continuing to build on its efforts to protect local communities, a gap remains when considering protections with respect to the potential and cumulative impacts of broader development projects (not just environmental facilities) that are located in neighborhoods concentrated by race and poverty. One example is the Interstate 81 Viaduct deconstruction project in Syracuse, New York, an Interstate that has been emblematic of those earlier planning practices that worked to displace Black neighborhoods and further segregate cities. This project primarily takes place in a predominately Black and low-income community and will reconnect residents to other areas of the city, while also reducing noise and air pollution. However, there are precautions that should be taken into consideration during the course of the project regarding the potential risk of health effects from changes to air quality, lead and asbestos exposure. Another example is the Inner Loop North project in Rochester, New York. Like Syracuse, the City of Rochester has a deep history in which the implementation of transportation infrastructure and other urban planning practices have isolated communities of color. Unfortunately, while the goals of this construction project are to provide better connectivity, this project has the potential for displacement and gentrification. For the aforementioned projects, and other similar ones, municipal and project leaders must continue conversations and prioritize community engagement and education, while also using a thorough assessment to acknowledge issues that are specific to low income and communities of color.
A Comprehensive Approach to Impact Assessment
In order to better ensure that such considerations are made in the process of projects like these, I propose requiring of a Neighborhood Equity Impact Assessment (NEIA) for all developments occurring within New York State designated “Disadvantaged Communities,” “Opportunity Zones,” and “Low-income census tracks” in order to evaluate both their potential adverse and positive effects on Black and other historically marginalized communities. This assessment would expand on the proposed requirements for environmental facilities in S8830, to include other types of local development projects, and to consider socioeconomic impacts alongside environmental and health impacts. It would broadly require that lead agencies acknowledge the racial makeup, median household income, and unemployment and poverty rates within the project area and that they review the potential that the project has to adversely affect the well-being of residents in the surrounding community, particularly Black residents and other historically marginalized groups. This includes addressing if and how the project will benefit or harm existing residents across such demographics through maintained or expanded quality affordable housing, infill development, plans for those temporarily displaced, public engagement and education, and increased access to transportation and services. Some project examples that may benefit from a NEIA include the deconstruction, removal, and construction of major highways and interstates, the placement or removal of potentially polluting facilities, residential construction in close proximity to Black neighborhoods that may spur gentrification and displacement, housing projects that do not encourage mixed-income residences and social mobility, and local government-led zoning adjustments and updates.
Below is a list of questions I have developed through my research that could be included on a New York State Equity Impact Assessment to examine the possibility of disproportionate effects on underserved communities prior to new project development:
The relationship and history that the Black community has with place and the built environment should be further considered in future research and policy. Historical urban planning practices have resulted in the centralization of poverty and lack of resources in Black neighborhoods. Residents face inequities with respect to affordable and quality housing, transportation, education, nutrition, healthcare, and other social services. The result has been negative health and economic outcomes and higher levels of violence and trauma.
Future planning policies must learn from these lessons and make decisions that take a more comprehensive view of the impact of changes in the built environment. A key to making more informed and equitable decisions is to understand the neighborhoods and residents that are directly and indirectly impacted. Urban planners should play a direct role in facilitating these conversations while also recognizing community members as leading experts. A Neighborhood Equity Impact Assessment would be a significant tool to hold developers and municipal leaders accountable, to work to the best of their ability to ensure that all neighborhoods are safe, well resourced, and equitable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tanya McGee is a community affairs project manager in the Office of Racial Equity and Social Unity at Corning Incorporated. Previously, McGee was a doctoral student in the College of Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University and an urban planner in Chemung County.