Standing on the banks of the Duwamish Waterway, Adrienne Hampton could see before her the manifestations of a legacy of pollution.
Low-flying planes descended into King County International Airport as waves of cars traversed the First Avenue South Bridge. Behind her, roaring trucks navigated potholes along residential streets flooded easily by light rain.
“The usual business,” said Hampton, the climate policy and engagement manager for the Duwamish River Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in South Park.
Across the Duwamish — which was designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency — lies Georgetown, a neighborhood surrounded by railroads and industrial manufacturers to the north, Interstate 5 to the east, and the airport to the south.
New research published earlier this month links redlining with disproportionate levels of air pollution, underscoring years of efforts in Georgetown, South Park and other communities segregated by racially discriminatory housing practices to untangle historic disparities exacerbated by warming temperatures and harmful emissions.
“Climate change makes bad things worse,” Hampton said. “If communities aren’t getting what they need now, how can we trust that the city of Seattle, King County is going to be there to protect communities when we know severe storms are on their way, sea level rise is on its way and increasing wildfire and degraded air quality?” she asked. “How can we make sure people are ready and have what they need?”
South Seattle has always been on the receiving end of the city’s biggest emitters. But the architecture of Seattle’s neighborhoods, like in many American cities, can be traced back to the early 20th century when redlining, racial covenants and other discriminatory mortgage and land-use processes were used to restrict where people could buy or rent property based on their income, ethnicity and race.
Those methods were outlawed decades ago, but the wounds they caused have yet to heal.
According to a study published earlier this month by the American Chemical Society, people of color, especially Black and Hispanic Americans, on average suffer higher levels of air pollution in the U.S.
“In the United States, communities of color are exposed to higher levels of air pollution at every income level,” the report states. “As with other environmental justice issues, the causes of systemic racial/ethnic air pollution exposure disparities are complex and rooted in part in historical patterns of exclusion and discrimination.”
Using urban maps from the 1930s alongside census data and measurements of nitrous dioxide and fine particulate matter in the air from 2010, researchers from Washington and California explored the connection in more than 200 American cities between air pollution and redlining, a mortgage appraisal system used by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which was sponsored by the government as part of the New Deal.
The researchers found the association to be “nearly monotonic.”
“These maps, which were drawn by people who are no longer alive, this racist urban planning from the 1930s, is still having an impact on the air pollution inequality that we face today,” said Julian Marshall, one of the report’s lead authors and a professor at the University of Washington, where he serves as associate chair for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as well as the director of the university’s Grand Challenges Impact Lab.
“People’s experiences with cities depends on who they are.”
Marshall said studies like this are possible now because maps like the ones used by HOLC have only in recent years been digitized, and measurements of air pollution at the local level have become more widely available.
The HOLC maps — which have been cataloged and made accessible through a joint effort by four universities — offer a window into a regrettable chapter of America’s history. But in many ways, and for many people, that chapter hasn’t closed.
These maps graded urban areas according to investment risk, an A denoting the “best” neighborhoods and a D grade referencing those considered “hazardous.”
In Seattle, the D4 area located near present-day Central District was referred to in the HOLC maps as the “Negro area of Seattle.”
“If you read those classifications, it is language that should make any American’s blood boil,” Marshall said. “It is explicitly racist language.”
Other parts of the city were given similar evaluations.
“Transportation is an acute problem. Future assessments will create an excessive burden incidental to homeownership in this area,” said a note in HOLC documents from the 1930s describing an area near South Park.
“This is an old residential area — hazardous as a security for long-term mortgage loans because of type of occupancy of district,” said another.
Some parts of Seattle were not redlined but still experienced relatively higher concentrations of air pollution. Northlake, Phinney Ridge and other neighborhoods near Green Lake, for example, still see more pollution due to, among other things, the age of its residential buildings and proximity to I-5.
Decades later, in 1968, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance “defining and prohibiting unfair-housing practices.”
The ordinance — passed just three weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — was spearheaded by Sam Smith, the city’s first elected African American council member.
To this day, efforts are being made by advocacy groups, community organizers, local businesses and lawmakers to unravel this entrenched system and to offset the damage it continues to cause.
Neighborhoods in South Seattle provide a stark example of this ongoing dynamic.
“Georgetown has a history of being overlooked,” said Greg Ramirez, chair of the Georgetown Community Council’s Board of Directors and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood.
“The reality is that we are still trying to be recognized as a neighborhood in Seattle,” he said. “That brings its own set of challenges when we’re trying to advocate for ourselves.”
Earlier this year, during a shorter session of the Legislature’s biennial cycle, lawmakers passed a mixed bag of climate proposals to, among other things, improve air quality monitoring and access to solar energy and public transportation in overburdened or low-income areas.
“What you have is generation after generation of systemic poverty,” said Paula Sardinas, president of FMS Global Strategies, a government public relations firm, and co-founder of the Washington Build Back Black Alliance, a coalition that aims to influence policies and existing legislation that impact Black people.
“All of this can be tracked back to the economic environment where these women and people of color have lived for decades,” she said. “It matters where we live and where we invest because our environment is literally killing you if you’re Black or brown.”
Hence policy efforts to electrify the state’s transportation system, provide support for commuters and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Sardinas said, carry greater significance for some neighborhoods than others.
Lawmakers also passed a $17 billion transportation package lauded as the biggest and greenest in the state’s history, which they said would put more than $3 billion toward transit and $1.2 billion into improvements for bike riders and pedestrians, in addition to funding to reduce carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, the ongoing temporary closure of the West Seattle Bridge has diverted large amounts of traffic to Georgetown, leading to even greater safety and air quality concerns.
The connection between air pollution and the elevated risk among children of developing asthma is well documented.
A 2017 study partially funded by the EPA found that among children, more exposure to higher levels of fine particulate matter is strongly associated with an increased risk of asthma and death.
Another study funded by the EPA found in 2013 that residents of the Duwamish Valley on average are sicker and die younger than those living in other parts of Seattle. Residents of South Park and Georgetown in particular live eight years fewer on average than the rest of Seattle and King County, most likely due to pollution, lack of green space and other environmental stressors, the report found.
These harsh realities are often difficult for residents to reconcile.
“My wife and I are raising two girls in this community and it’s something that we think about,” Ramirez said. “This is what I call home. I don’t want to leave.”