Depression-Era Redlining Leaves Parts Of Durham Less Green

Jun 10, 2016

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation program in the 1930s delineated regions deemed too risky for federal mortgage assistance. These maps, including this one from 1937, were also used by the City of Durham to direct tree-planting programs.
Credit National Archives

A new study from Duke University shows how maps from a Depression-era loan program that discriminated against predominantly black neighborhoods resulted in inequities that still linger, even down to the number of trees on a city block.

Through a process that came to be known as ‘redlining’, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation program in the 1930s delineated regions deemed too risky for federal mortgage assistance, areas that were largely minority and low-income neighborhoods.

These maps were also used by the City of Durham to direct tree-planting programs, resulting in lush canopies in wealthy white neighborhoods and sparse plantings in East Durham.

Greg Cooper, a master's student in environmental management and forestry at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, co-authored a report examining how this trend persists in Durham today. According to the report, East Durham has 40 percent less tree canopy coverage than traditionally higher-income neighborhoods like Trinity Park, a direct result of redlining.

The report concludes the lack of trees negatively impacts the quality of life in these neighborhoods. Trees are more than just ornamental, as numerous studies show they offer measurable health and environmental benefits in residential areas.

"They also convey air quality benefits," Cooper said.  "They increase home values;  there’s a lot of heating and cooling benefits.  They are also shown to increase well-being and overall mental happiness."

Cooper said Durham needs to consider changing the way it allocates tree-planting resources to correct this historical injustice.

"[Trees] are infrastructure in a city," said Cooper. "They're providing services to citizens. If we can level it out across the city, then all the citizens will benefit from it."

Cooper and his co-authors presented their report to Durham’s Environmental Affairs Board, or EAB, in June. The timing is critical, he noted, because many of the trees planted 80 years ago are dying. Residents from neighborhoods with traditionally green vistas are pressuring the city to replace them. 

"You have this convergence of this historic inequality of tree planting, and you actually have all these trees that are being taken out of communities as well, so as a whole, communities have less canopy cover," said Cooper. "I think right now is a great time for action to equalize how the trees are planted going forward."

While city leaders would like to redress the problem, resources are limited.  A recent study by the EAB concluded Durham needs at least 1,600 plantings a year just to replace aging trees. 

Cooper said he hopes the study will empower communities that have been historically overlooked for plantings to advocate for new trees.

"The policy, generally, right now, is to plant trees where trees have been removed, which is exacerbating the problem of the historic tree plantings," he said.

The report also recommends the city modify its policy of requiring homeowners split the cost of new trees with the city.

In June of 2014, WUNC's Frank Stasio spoke with Richard Marciano, a former UNC-Chapel Hill professor, and Nathan Connolly, history professor at Johns Hopkins University, about the lasting effects of redlining.