The Lingering Shadow of Redlining: Fossil Fuel Power Plants and Air Pollution

Historically redlined communities in the U.S. today have lower home values, poorer health, and greater exposure to environmental hazards. Our research found that between 2000 and 2019, fossil fuel power plants were 31% more likely to be built near and upwind of neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930s.

Why are some communities more burdened by air pollution than others? People of color including Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods with poor air quality. Breathing dirty air aggravates asthma and heart disease and is estimated to cause 100,000 premature deaths in the U.S. every year.

We investigated the role of redlining in creating disparities in air quality. Federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlining maps ranked U.S. neighborhoods according to perceived lending risk ranging from A (‘best’) to D (‘hazardous’ or redlined) as part of an effort to encourage mortgage lending and prevent foreclosures in the wake of the Great Depression. Neighborhoods with Black, East Asian, Filipino, and foreign-born residents were more likely to receive poor grades, while A-graded neighborhoods were almost exclusively home to White, U.S.-born families. As a result, redlining reinforced residential segregation and discouraged investment in communities of color.
Recent studies point to a link between historical redlining and present-day inequalities in air pollution. We investigated the relationship between HOLC grades and one source of air pollutants – fossil fuel power plants. We found that across 196 U.S. cities, a fossil fuel power plant was more likely to be built upwind and nearby (within 5 km) of redlined neighborhoods than neighborhoods graded A, B or C.  Read JPB Fellow Lara Cushing’s article here.