On a hot day in July, Ali Muhammed was on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard passing out copies of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, The Final Call. He was in a full suit, sweat beading on his forehead from the beaming sun. The issue was about extreme heat, which has been plaguing the globe this summer. He’s found Atlanta’s heat apocalyptic.
“This is the end of the world as we know it,” said Muhammed, 77, who was born and raised on Atlanta’s Westside.
Temperatures rose above 90 degrees on 27 days during July — well above the month’s average of just 16 days — and so far, August has brought more of the same. The city was under an excessive heat warning on Monday, as the humidity made temperatures feel like more than 100 degrees.
There’s no question that climate change is partially behind the record temperatures worldwide. But for residents on Atlanta’s Westside, there’s an additional factor at play: racist urban planning policies.
A recent study by Urban Adapt, a consulting firm in Atlanta that focuses on climate outcomes, shows that residents in Atlanta’s mostly Black Westside neighborhoods are more vulnerable to extremely high temperatures than those in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. Some residents on the Westside, where certain neighborhoods were redlined during the 1930s, say the rising heat is so bad, they feel like they’re getting closer to the sun.
“There’s more literature now that’s pointing to redlining … these racist policies that say, ‘You’re not allowed to develop in certain ways here’ or ‘We’re not going to fund development here,’” said Evan Mallen, who co-led the research alongside Brian Stone. “So the areas that have this history of redlining are often the hottest. They’ve got the lowest tree canopy and the highest asphalt, concrete impervious surface coverage, which contributes to urban heat.”
A community’s heat vulnerability, rated on a 1 to 10 scale, considers the local population’s health and ability to withstand high temperatures as well as their access to air conditioning and other cooling resources.
In Westside neighborhoods, where much of Atlanta’s tree canopy has been decimated by new homes and developments, temperatures are hotter. Air conditioning prevalence is also lower in older houses — less than 80% of residents in many Westside neighborhoods have air conditioning, compared to 96% prevalence for the entire city, the study says. Air conditioning, Mallen says, is becoming a life supporting technology as temperatures rise, but can become complicated for low-income families, who may not want to run their air conditioners because of the cost.
The Urban Adapt study was commissioned by Atlanta City Council members Matt Westmoreland and Liliana Bakhtiari.
“Legislation is definitely coming,” Westmoreland said in an interview. “Now that we’ve got street-level data, and neighborhood level data, that kind of provides us with a road map of sorts to more directly engage the people who are most affected in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to without this research.”
English Avenue topped the list of heat-vulnerable neighborhoods, mostly driven by the older population in the area, with a heat vulnerability score of 10, the highest a neighborhood can get. For older adults, the body’s natural cooling system is compromised, which makes it harder to deal with humidity and higher temperatures.
Across the globe, temperatures point to the Earth warming, with cities getting warmer each year. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the highest temperature ever recorded in Atlanta was 106 degrees in June 2012. While we haven’t seen three-digit temperatures in the city this year, July was recorded as the world’s hottest month — a consequence of climate change, researchers said.
In a hypothetical blackout, in which all Atlantans lose power because of the stress on the electrical grid, 15,000 people could need medical attention, Mallen and Stone estimated. With the loss of Atlanta Medical Center downtown, that could potentially overwhelm an already strained medical system, and have worse implications for Black residents in the central Fulton County area. Some residents also may not want to run their air conditioning because of a higher cost, what Mallen calls a higher “energy burden.”
Elaine Robinson, who lives in Washington Park, said her energy bill has gone up in recent years.
“It went from $79 to $90, in that bracket, to $237, and I think that’s a big gap for two years,” she said. “I can’t go without cooking, I can’t go without washing our clothes.”
Among the most significant causes of higher temperatures in these neighborhoods is a loss of the tree canopy. The study’s authors recommended that the city plant more trees — 350,000 of them — and prioritize neighborhoods like English Avenue, where people have less ability to cool themselves and heat vulnerability is high. But environmental experts say tree planting could be complicated because of contaminated land in some of the vulnerable neighborhoods.
In Vine City and English Avenue, two of the most heat-vulnerable neighborhoods in the study, lead has been found in some soil samples. The area became a Superfund site in 2022, which allows the Environmental Protection Agency to clean the contamination.
The EPA has been testing and cleaning the soil in the area, but because of distrust of the government, some residents will decline the cleanup all-together. Noting the long-term disinvestment in the area, residents fear the cleanup is an effort to gentrify the neighborhood.
“They’ve seen these things be brought into the neighborhood, like lead-filled soil. And it’s unfortunate there’s a lot of different reasons why this happens,” said Alayna Famble, who has led the EPA’s Superfund cleanup of the two communities, pointing to the EPA’s environmental justice program. “Whether it be low income or minority status, we have these communities across the nation, they do have these health disparities and have these environmental issues that kind of compound.”
Greg Levine, the executive director at Trees Atlanta, said trees should be able to grow even if the land is contaminated. But planting them could be a concern for his volunteers, who plant trees across Atlanta, since lead can contaminate the human bloodstream.
But more needs to be done to protect the existing tree canopy, he said. Mayor Andre Dickens made the first changes to the tree protection ordinance in decades, which included ensuring the soil volume for trees was good enough for them to continue to grow, and fence protection around trees during construction.
But with increasing development happening across the city, Levine says reevaluating fines for tree removal would be helpful, since that rate hasn’t been updated in over 20 years. The fine for illegally cutting down a tree can be $1,000 or more, which Levine says isn’t much to dissuade large, wealthy companies.
“Right now, what we find is that Downtown, in the core of Downtown, is the hottest, and they have the least amount of tree coverage,” Levine said. “That’s English Avenue, Vine City, Mechanicsville, Pittsburgh. … Those are all neighborhoods that are very close to downtown.”
Westside resident Eric Smith, a plumber who is working on new construction, says he’s noticed more trees in the area coming down. He also says he wants to see Dickens do more to protect the trees.
“He should improve it,” Smith said. “He’s from the ’hood.”
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