UW research shows racism and redlining hurt local wildlife, too 

A team of researchers led by UW scientists exposes how systemic racism physically alters ecosystems for the worse.

birds eye views of two tracts of land in Washington State

Neighborhoods shaped by decades of redlining, gentrification and investment have changed the Seattle landscape from areas with low eco-diversity in South Park, right, to great eco-diversity in Broadmoor. (Crosscut)

While growing up in Los Angeles, urban ecologist Dr. Christopher Schell often visited wealthy friends who lived in “mini-mansions” on larger tracts of land. 

“I remember always seeing more wildlife around their houses and not around mine,” he says. “That was when I started to think, there may be something to this.”

Now an assistant professor with the University of Washington in Tacoma, Schell is illuminating the blind spots of ecological research. In a new review paper in Science, Schell and his colleagues scoured the ecological literature to establish how racism and classism impact biodiversity, and why it’s so important to factor social justice issues into ecological research. The authors boil down the many human impacts on the environment ⁠— disparities in vegetation and tree density, pollutant exposure, urban heat islands, access to healthy waterways, and proportions of native to non-native plants ⁠— and connect them to racist policies like redlining, displacement, gentrification and Jim Crow laws. The paper highlights how, when people in power wield influence over the landscape in ways that devalue people’s lives, animals and plants suffer, too ⁠— often in ways that further worsen human health. 

Crosscut interviewed Schell and co-author Dr. Karen Dyson to learn more about how incorporating social justice issues into ecological research helps us better understand our true impact on the world around us, and what it feels like to publish their paper in this moment of anti-racist reckoning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Your paper explores how racist urbanist policy and power imbalances also affect how animal and plant populations physically change, survive, fail or disperse. What inspired you to do this? 

Schell: My bread and butter is behavioral wildlife ecology. Concurrently I've been doing work on diversity and inclusion in STEM, pretty much since I was an undergrad, but those always remained separate. During my graduate and postdoc careers, I was having a hard time with people not seeing how they were connected. So when I finally linked up with Max [Lambert], Karen and Tracy [Fuentes], it was like talking to folks that were in my brain since time immemorial, thinking about issues such as, why are we not thinking about how we as scientists are being inclusionary in our practice, but even to a broader scale, how the ways in which we treat each other in a society impact and are impacted by the ways in which our natural world functions. 

Certainly, there have been other papers and other scholars before us who have talked about social-ecological feedback loops, but we've ignored the really heavy issues. We need to talk about the elephant in the room: Not every human being in this society has the same amount of power or privilege to actually shape society in a way that is making a large impact. 

So we started talking about the ways in which society is unequally distributed, whether it be residential segregation, or gentrification or displacement, or the several other factors that very fundamentally shape what and where everything is; and that this has been happening for a long time. But the people that were in power weren't telling that story, because [of], frankly, white privilege and toxic masculinity. [It] was white heteronormative males that were leading the conversation, and they've never had to deal with any of this. 

So we were like, we've had it, let's write what we've always seen and put it in a way that they will understand.

A figure from the new review paper in Science traces how racist and classist policies relate to environmental factors that reduce biodiversity. (Schell et al., 2020/Science. Reprinted by permission, AAAS.)

You outlined how a few key environmental factors that contribute to ecological problems ⁠— things like absence of tree cover, presence of pollutants and heat islands ⁠— stem from racist and classist policies. How did you wind up focusing on these factors? 

Schell: We started following the trees. That was the easiest path, because there's so many studies already looking at tree and vegetation cover. And that tends to oftentimes be the underlying largest principle factor that changes all the other biotic and abiotic factors: So reduction in trees influences urban heat islands. It’s correlated with impervious surface cover, which is related to water retention in soils. It's also related to air pollution. And it just so happens that reduction in trees is also related to say, pollution levels. So we very much Lorax-style followed the trees and that helped us connect those bigger dots.

You start your paper exploring the luxury effect: that wealth impacts biodiversity. Why haven’t we talked about how racism influences that effect before? 

Schell: At least for the United States, the short answer is: If you're born here, you are raised in a white supremacist culture. You were taught early on to not talk about race. And that certainly happens in biology: We don't talk about it because the science is "objective." Which is the biggest joke, right? We're not objective. We choose the research that we do, and we have our own biases, which is part of the reason why we have things that help us guard against our own biases.

Imagine you’re a white heteronormative male getting into urban ecology in 2005 — it's nascent but booming. You very much want to talk about the structures humans create and how they influence wildlife. So you think about looking at median household income because you notice some houses are more expensive and some are not so expensive. But all you really know in terms of your reality is that you live either in a middle income house or an upper income house. You've been probably predominantly surrounded by people who are white. So when it comes to issues of race, you don't talk about them in a paper because you don't know how. And you think it's taboo, so why would you talk about it?

You could start to get a little bit more brazen: You say, OK, well, maybe these underlying factors are driven by sociodemographic factors. But you grew up in America. You don't know anything about Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Emmett Till or the Central Park Five or Shirley Chisholm or James Baldwin. You don't even know their names. So how could you articulate those points?

South Park from above revels a neighborhood with unkempt parks and many streets with few trees and vegetation. (Crosscut)

What’s the best way to help people understand this issue? 

Schell: I use anthropomorphism to help people see, because for whatever reason, sometimes it's easier for folks to see and humanize animals than it is to humanize people. And as I say that, I know how terrible that sounds. Right? That's horrible. [But] if I can get you to the table somehow — if getting you to the table is through coyote puppies ⁠— then let that be the story. 

So: As a carnivore lover, I think about, for instance, a coyote: What does a coyote want when it's in a city? How on earth did it get into the city in the first place? What if the animal is at a Superfund site with soil that still needs to be remediated because it has heavy metals that we know have sublethal consequences for that animal? And then that's when you start to go down the rabbit hole of like, wow, there are heavy metals in some places, but not in other places. And, isn't it so interesting that some of these places that don't have the heavy metals, they instead have these big trees, and these large lots?

What is an example of a racist policy that results in biodiversity loss?

Schell: Take habitat fragmentation. The way in which the I-5 corridor is shaped is because [urban planners] essentially went, “Where is the land value the least? We'll just put the highway there.” Here's the thing: Land value was the lowest in predominantly Black and brown and low-income neighborhoods, and the land value was devalued by the government because of redlining. So urban planners were able to say, “Well, let's just put [I-5] in the area that doesn't have that much economic value,” but the government did that on purpose, to make the economic value decrease. 

That's why if you're going south down I-5 from Seattle [to Tacoma], where I-5 is, it cuts through Columbia City and other parts of the Duwamish. That's where most of the predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods are. It avoids people in some of the other areas that were predominantly white, and cuts straight through historically black neighborhoods. 

Animals not being able to get where they need to go restricts gene flow, which increases inbreeding, and that population goes extinct. If you continually fragment the habitat over decades, you see that habitat dwindles and dwindles to the point that it can't house that many species. 

For instance, we don't have red foxes anymore in Tacoma. Coyotes took over that spot. There's no habitat for them to come back into. That's how the city works. If you're going, it's really hard to establish yourself afterward. 

How does land ownership play into biodiversity loss? 

Dyson: [It determines] who gets to decide what these properties look like, what trees are there, what shrubs get planted. Is the grass capped at 2 inches with a ruler and perfectly fertilized or is it let go to seed, and therefore has different insect habitat than the super manicured lawn?

Schell: In this neighborhood in Central Tacoma, we're seeing some folks have these short mown grasslands like Karen was talking about, but some have shrubbery. And what does that do to the complexity of pollinators? Three or four years ago, there were tons of studies that were hyped up on NPR talking about how we're losing bees. This is not a coincidence, because at the same time, economic inequality has also increased, which is driven by structural and systemic racism. So that's the connection.

Broadmoor, one of Seattle's wealthiest neighborhoods has many trees and lush open spaces. (Crosscut)

How might we reverse that kind of loss? 

Schell: The answer isn't necessarily what we traditionally think of as conservation practices. [Conservationists] will put trees in a neighborhood and say, “that'll help everything.” As soon as you plant trees, you increase property taxes, increase the housing crisis, and then people get displaced. And then there's just constant turnover. No native species is gonna want to be in that turnover. They're like, “Nah, you keep your drama. I'm gonna stay way over here in the ‘burbs because I want to be here.”

That means increasing affordable housing practices, and making sure that people can own their land and their own homes ⁠— and, it should be noted that we're all on stolen land anyway. Imagine if we had a living wage and public transportation and affordable housing for everybody. [That] reduces ecological instability, which means that more animals get to call the city their home, and at the same time we reduce carbon emissions, which helps our planet generally. 

That's just the tip of the spear. We didn't even get to strengthening voting rights for these disenfranchised communities, in order to have a voice that amplifies their community, so they can do all of this stuff, right? 

Dyson: Bringing it back around to policy, a lot of cities in this area have tree protection policies of different strengths. And they're applied in different ways. And the areas that tend to have stronger tree protection policies tend to be richer and whiter. Right? So it's mostly places on the East Side. And Seattle's tree Protection Policy is ... not great. 

It's sad, but Seattle's the Emerald City for some, but not all.

Schell: You should put that on a shirt, Karen, that phrase right there. I mean that. Oh my goodness. 

How does it feel to be releasing a paper like this now, with the growth of our region’s anti-racist movement? 

Schell: Cathartic. The biggest indication for me on my paper, how I knew that this was important, was when I shared it with my mama and she was excited about it. Normally I'll send her a paper ⁠— it’s on wildlife, and she doesn’t completely get it ⁠— and she's like, “Oh, I'm so proud, look at what he's doing.” But this paper, she's like, “Oh no, I totally get it.” Always get the mama stamp of approval.

We were working on this in earnest for two years, but the time when it came out ⁠— during these dual pandemics, before an election — I guess serendipitous is not the right word, because it should not have taken a police officer on the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes for people to start paying attention, or for our country to be the worst in terms of COVID numbers for us to legitimately pay attention to these issues. And yet, I think with every passing month, as I mentioned earlier, our soapbox just kept getting bigger to the point that we didn't even need the megaphone, because you couldn't hear anything else. It was just so deafening. So the ground was fertile enough for people to listen. 

How do you hope scientists will put this paper into practice?

Schell: What are you going to do that makes you a science activist? That doesn't necessarily mean you gotta cape up and go to a march tomorrow. But it does mean at least, if you're working in an urban system, think about your design. Think about where you're sampling. Think about if you are doing research outside of your country, and you're working with a culture that you are not from, how you interact with that culture and how you compensate that culture. How do you embody and empower that particular culture when you're doing your work? And don't do parachute science!

Here’s evidence. Here's your jumping off point. If you were scared before of moving forward, because you didn't think that you could, here's that platform. We're giving it to you and we hope five years from now, we're not talking about how novel this is, but how this was just a stepping stone.

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