Floodplains and Redlines

Three of Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) students wanted to make an environmental justice impact right here in Philadelphia. So, they set out to better understand how historical housing policies and flood hazard zones have unequally affected various communities within our city. The Academy reached out to learn more.

Tell us about yourselves.  

Erin Wright: I graduated in March after majoring in environmental studies and sustainability. I had two minors, one in public health and one in geoscience. I worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences for two of my co-ops and at the Philadelphia International Airport as an environmental engineering intern for one of my co-ops. Ultimately, I want to work with climate resiliency and environmental justice.    

Ivy Steinberg-McElroy: I am a recent graduate of Drexel with a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies and sustainability with a minor in sociology. My environmental science experiences include a six-month co-op internship growing organic produce on an urban farm and a nine-month fellowship doing flooding research with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate Resiliency. I am headed to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a master’s in environmental studies, but I would love to work for the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability or the Philadelphia Water Department. 

Sally Harpster: I will be graduating from Drexel University with a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies and sustainability. I currently work at the Academy of Natural Sciences in the Live Animal Center. I have always been fascinated by evolution and the complexity of ecological relationships, and I wanted to understand how these systems would be impacted by climate change and pollution so I switched to environmental studies and sustainability in order to pursue a career in environmental justice. 

What was the inspiration behind your BEES work?  

ISM: The idea to look at flood zones in Philadelphia was originally Erin’s but it worked out perfectly because I had been doing outside research on redlining and flooding in New York City, so I had experience with some of the GIS maps we utilized. We decided to expand the scope of our research and look at other demographic communities besides just redlined ones.  

SH: Erin, Ivy and I all share a strong interest in environmental justice, so, when we decided to work together on our senior project, it was a given that something to do with societal structures and the impacts of environmental hazards on marginalized communities would be our focus. Erin had the idea to create a map of Philadelphia flood hazard zones and look at how they overlap with marginalized communities. Ivy and I were immediately on board because it seemed especially relevant after the flooding we witnessed in Philadelphia in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, and it complemented the research that Ivy was already involved in. 

EW: It was important for me to focus my research on a topic that I am passionate about. Many people I know do not picture climate change as an issue that will affect them. It is important for community members to be aware of their position when it comes to climate change and resiliency. I also wanted to take a deeper look into how environmental injustice may be involved.   

Tell us more about your research. What did you learn? 

ISM: We wanted our research to have a strong environmental justice lens, so we looked at different disadvantaged communities in Philadelphia that are disproportionately impacted by a variety of environmental issues. We found our data from a few different sources: Open Data Philly, Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access, and the University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality Project. These shapefiles include FEMA Flood Hazard Zones, city-funded affordable housing projects built between 1994 and 2019, correctional facilities, and redlined neighborhoods. 

SH: We decided to focus on redlining because it is a huge part of the history of environmental racism, and we wanted to understand how systems of environmental injustice came to be in Philadelphia. Redlining was banned in 1968 by the Fair Housing Act, but the effects of this practice can still be seen today. During the practice of redlining, communities across the U.S. were given grades by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) which determined a resident’s abilities to get loans or mortgages. These grades were A (best), B (still desirable), C (definitely declining) and D (hazardous) and they were primarily determined based on the race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status of the residents. Residents in communities that were yellowlined or redlined, meaning they received a grade of C or D, were often denied mortgages, and their communities were disinvested in. This significantly obstructed their ability to build generational wealth. With this map, we were hoping to see the relationship between the racist practice of redlining and environmental injustice. 

ISM: We found that a majority of flood zones in Philadelphia are in communities that were given a redlining grade of C or D. We also found that many affordable housing facilities are located in D-graded neighborhoods. A possible explanation for this could be that it is a result of ongoing inequality that stems from the practice of redlining. In addition, nine out of the twelve correctional facilities in the city are located in flood hazard zones. 

SH: Data about the locations of affordable housing projects was included because the people who live in affordable housing often lack the financial means to recover after a natural disaster such as flooding, making them particularly vulnerable. We included the locations of correctional facilities because mass incarceration in the U.S. is a problem fueled by racism and inequality, and those who are incarcerated are often treated by the system as though they are dispensable. Unfortunately, correctional facilities being placed in or near environmental hazards is a pattern that can be seen across the U.S., putting the health and safety of those who are incarcerated at risk.  

A portion of the map to better highlight the locations of several correctional facilities in a northeastern portion of Philadelphia.

What is the goal of your work? 

ISM: Our work shows that the impacts of flooding in Philadelphia are not equal, and that work needs to be done to build up the resilience of marginalized communities. Sally will be continuing this research and we would love to explore other demographic populations along with other environmental issues such as urban heat.     

SH: We hope that this research can help identify patterns of environmental injustice in Philadelphia so that communities impacted by environmental injustice can receive the attention and support they need. We also hope that our research highlights that environmental injustice is not an accidental inequality but is, in fact, closely tied to the history of explicit racism and classism in the United States and, more specifically, in Philadelphia. I am working to uncover other indicators of systemic environmental injustice, by seeing how these communities overlap with other environmental hazards. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with both Erin and Ivy, and I am so thankful to them for being dedicated and wonderful team members. 


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