Amidst rising heat, are redlined neighborhoods hotter than the rest?

It’s the middle of summer break, but Precious McKesson sees only a handful of kids riding bikes near her home.

“If they don’t have to be outside, they’re not,” McKesson said.

McKesson, president of the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, believes she can see the effects the growing summer temperatures have on residents. Although summer temperatures are rising across the city, McKesson said there’s a noticeable difference, specific to her neighborhood.

“Visually it looks hotter because it’s nothing but dirt, just open land,” McKesson said. 

The numbers back her up.

The entrance to Conestoga Park near 18th Street and Lake Street in North Omaha. Parks like Conestoga exist, but are more available in other areas of the city. Alex Carter for the Flatwater Free Press

North and South Omaha contain the city’s historically redlined neighborhoods – areas where racial discrimination by government agencies and lending corporations segregated Omaha by restricting where Black people and other people of color could live. 

Despite comprising 5% of the city areas graded by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1935, the redlined zones only contain 1% of its green space in today’s park acreage, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of redlining maps and Omaha Parks and Recreation data.

That calculation doesn’t include other kinds of green space like bigger lawns or privately-owned golf courses – typically scarce in urban cores like North and South Omaha, UNMC researchers say.

The lack of green space can be a contributing factor to urban “heat islands” – areas that can be 20 degrees hotter than other parts of a city, according to the National Integrated Heat Health Information System

This summer, researchers at The University of Nebraska Medical Center will analyze if historically segregated neighborhoods face hotter temperatures than other parts of Omaha. Extreme heat is the most deadly weather event in the U.S. making any additional degrees a serious concern. 

UNMC is recruiting participants in the study. Learn more here.

Marie Varne is a volunteer for the study. She grew up in North Omaha and remembers spending most of her summers outdoors – something she rarely sees near her childhood home today.

“We’re getting closer to 100s,” Varne said, “That was not happening when I was a kid, at all.”

Heat islands can be caused by an absence of tree cover and a lack of green spaces or energy-efficient building materials. Some neighborhoods in North and South Omaha lack all three, said Abdoulaziz Abdoulaye, an organizer of the heat mapping initiative and a fourth year doctoral student at UNMC. 

A map by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in 1935. The neighborhoods marked “C” which means declining, and “D” which means hazardous, today have 5 fewer swimming pools and 750 fewer acres of city-owner green space than the larger areas marked “A” or “B”.

“You can really see the difference between Dundee and when you go deep in North Omaha, they have more parks. You go to Regency, there are more trees,” Abdoulaye said.

West Omaha neighborhoods between 108th Street and 180th Street contain roughly double the amount of city-owned park acreage per square mile as do northeast and southeast Omaha, according to an analysis done by the Flatwater Free Press.  

Although redlining practices were made illegal in 1968, clear racial and economic divisions  remain in Omaha today. 

An additional divide in health persists between redlined and other communities in Omaha, making an increase in temperature especially dangerous, said Jesse Bell, the study’s lead investigator and the Claire M. Hubbard Professor of Water, Climate and Health at UNMC’s College of Public Health.

Extreme heat can be life threatening for people with preexisting cardiovascular conditions, respiratory issues and diabetes, Bell said. 

A higher percentage of people over 18 with asthma, diabetes and lung disease lived in northeast and southeast Omaha in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A pair of park goers lounge on the grass in Memorial Park in midtown Omaha. Central and western parts of the city – where Black Omahans and other Omahans of color were largely barred from buying homes under the practice of redlining – have more publicly available parks and other green space than neighborhoods in North Omaha and South Omaha. Alex Carter for the Flatwater Free Press

“If we’re not addressing extreme heat events now, and the potential health impacts that they’re having on our community, we’re definitely not going to be ready for the changes that we’re seeing in the future,” Bell said.

The Environmental Protection agency predicts the number of 100-degree days will double in the next 70 years.

“We don’t see [extreme heat] as a threat yet. And the unfortunate part of it is, it’s not a threat until something severe happens,” Bell said.

Omaha is one of 14 U.S. cities participating in the heat mapping campaign this summer. 

Community volunteers led by Med Center researchers will drive or bike approximately 90 square miles of Omaha, recording the temperature and humidity in specific neighborhoods on a day in late July or early August, Abdoulaye said.

North Omaha already faces elevated levels of pollution due to the proximity of Highway 75 and Omaha Public Power District’s North Omaha plant – which just announced a plan to continue burning coal until 2026 – said Ryan Wishart, a Creighton University professor  specializing in environmental sociology. 

North and South Omaha are also taking financial hits because of rising temperatures, Wishart said. Those neighborhoods contain some of the city’s oldest housing, making it harder to regulate the temperature due to outdated, less energy-efficient housing materials. 

Residents in these historically redlined areas may also face more expensive energy bills than those in non-redlined neighborhoods.

“This is not only coming there, measuring [temperatures] and then saying, ‘Oh, there is a difference,’” Abdoulaye said. “What do we do if there is a difference? What do we do even if there is not a difference?”

Potential solutions: Increasing tree cover, adding public transit, increasing access to cooling centers and using more energy-efficient materials, Abdoulaye said. 

There isn’t one simple solution to reducing the effects of a heat island, said Elizabeth Chalecki, a University of Nebraska Omaha professor and environmental research fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Lots of changes are necessary. 

“Trees don’t grow immediately, but you have to plant them immediately,” Chalecki said. “We need to make these decisions immediately and take these actions immediately to reap the benefits in the future.”

Abdoulaye’s eventual goal is to work with the city to implement policies that would help North and South Omaha communities mitigate extreme heat. But first, he wants to grab the attention of community members. 

“What we need is to invest in these communities, because that’s what they were denied in the ‘30s,” Abdoulaye said.

Abdoulaye recognizes the consequence of extreme heat and climate disparities is a growing problem for Omaha’s future. That’s why he hopes families and children get involved with the mapping campaign.

“I want to get data but that’s not my goal. My goal is to just have people there to be part of the study,” Abdoulaye said. 

The Flatwater Free Press analysis was based on Omaha Parks and Recreation data from the Planning Division and a map by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation from 1935. Using park addresses and mapping software, Flatwater Free Press reporters located where each park would fall on the 1935 map and then totalled the acreage in each color-coded area. Parks located outside Omaha city limits in 1935 were not included.

Based on data from Omaha Parks and Recreation, there are approximately 2.8 square miles of city-owned parks in West Omaha zip codes 68010, 68144 68154 and 68164. Together, the North and South Omaha zip codes of  68104, 68105, 68108 and 68111 had roughly one square mile of city-owned park acreage. For both regions the number of park acres were divided by the total square miles of all four zip codes –  68010, 68144 68154 and 68164 had roughly 25 square miles while 68104, 68105, 68108 and 68111 had close to 19. This showed the West Omaha zip codes had 11.2% city-owned park acres per square mile while the North and South Omaha zip codes had 5.3% per square mile.

By Addie Costello

Addie Costello is a summer intern studying journalism and government at The University of Texas at Austin. While in Texas, she has worked at The Texas Standard, Austin Chronicle, KXAN News and her university's newspaper as the podcast editor. After spending a few years away, she is excited to be back in Nebraska and reporting on her home state.