Legacy of racist US housing policies extends even to bird data

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Observations of birds are relatively scarce in neighbourhoods that were redlined, or designated as risky for mortgage lending, in the 1930s.Credit: George Rose/Getty

Ecologist Diego Ellis-Soto has plenty of local bird data to study. On the university campus where he works, more than half a million bird sightings have been recorded over the past century. But Dixwell, a neighbourhood just down the road, has totalled just a few dozen bird observations in the same period.

“I could go there one day and double what’s been collected in the last 100 years,” says Ellis-Soto, who’s at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. It might be no coincidence that Yale’s students and faculty are mostly white — in contrast to Dixwell, which has a high proportion of residents who are Black.

The disparity in recorded bird sightings doesn’t affect just New Haven. An analysis1 by Ellis-Soto and his colleagues shows that data on bird biodiversity are scarcest in US neighbourhoods, such as Dixwell, that have historically been subjected to certain racially discriminatory policies. This lack of information could affect scientists’ understanding of how birds are distributed in US cities and how species fare over time.

Red zones for real estate

In the 1930s, a US-government-led effort graded urban neighbourhoods across the country on whether they were ‘safe’ for real-estate investment. Areas that were judged to be the safest bets for investment were rated ‘green’, and those judged to be highest risk were rated ‘red’. Grades were determined, in part, by a neighbourhood’s racial composition. This categorization, now called redlining, drove investment in wealthier and white neighbourhoods. It also led to a lack of investment in poorer areas and in neighbourhoods of colour.

To study how redlining has affected biodiversity assessment, Ellis-Soto and his team studied bird sightings in more than 9,000 neighbourhoods, covering almost 200 US cities. They found that there were many more bird observations per square kilometre in green districts, whose residents are in many cases still predominantly white, than in redlined districts, whose residents are mainly people of colour.

“You can better predict where you have data on birds based on systemic racism — redlining maps from 1933 — than climate, tree cover or population density, everything a bird should actually care about,” Ellis-Soto says.

From 2000 to 2020, the density of bird observations rose steeply in green neighbourhoods, but more gradually in red ones. The disparity in observations between green and red zones grew by more than 35% in that period, the authors calculate.

The study is one of the first direct looks at how “systemic racism can play a role in the ecological process”, says Jin Bai, an urban ornithologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Missing data, missing funds

Data on biodiversity constitute the “first building block” for distributing funds to protect wildlife, says Ellis-Soto. Without data to show their ecological importance, redlined areas could be passed over for funding — widening historical inequalities.

“It’s essentially this self-perpetuating negative loop,” says Chris Schell, an urban ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “You have more observations of a native species in an environment that already has a ton of money. Then that same neighbourhood gets more money to conserve a species, which makes it more exclusive, which makes housing more exclusive, which then continues the legacies of segregation.”

Ellis-Soto says the gap in data is due, in part, to biases held by scientists and birders, who tend to survey the same areas repeatedly. A lack of resources for teaching birding and for recording observations in historically marginalized areas also contributes.

Ellis-Soto would like federal funding for such education efforts. But in the meantime, he takes Black and Hispanic kids from New Haven for nature walks and teaches them how to log the birds they see. “That’s my little solution,” he says.

Source: Ecology -

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