Systemic inequalities such as racism and classism not only erode social justice but have broader impacts on cities’ natural environments, public health and humanity’s resilience to climate change, argues a review published in the journal Science.
Amassing more than 170 studies, the authors find that racism and other inequities are diminishing biodiversity of plants and animals and compounding the harmful impacts of urban heat islands, extreme temperatures and pollution.
The review, led by Christopher Schnell from the University of Washington, US, is a callout to scientists, stressing the need to bridge social and environmental research.
While studies have started to explore how social factors like race, sex and age contribute to urban ecology, Schnell and co-authors say the impact of social inequality has been largely neglected.
“Critically,” they write, “we draw on the social and political sciences to specifically stress how understanding systemic racism and racial oppression… is essential for advancing urban ecology and evolutionary biology research.”
They’re also breeding grounds for resilient disease-carrying pests such as rodents and mosquitoes and are closer to industrial waste or dumps, with greater exposure to air pollution. These combined factors impair human health and wellbeing.
Poor tree cover can also diminish gene flow of native species, with evolutionary ramifications. Urban barriers that are more concentrated in minority neighbourhoods could have similar impacts, the authors note.
Broadening the web, they argue that early environmentalists were dominated by white men who wrote that nature was the privilege of their class, excluding black, indigenous and non-white immigrants and traditional knowledge from environmental management.
This, they say, has perpetuated the problem.
In addressing inequities, the authors suggest ecologists, biologists and environmentalists can improve biodiversity and conservation by considering socio-economic factors not typically embraced by their disciplines and factoring in environmental justice principles.
“Doing so is both our civic responsibility and conservation imperative for advancing urban resiliency in the face of unrelenting global environmental change,” they write.
Programs could include investment into affordable housing and healthcare, greater empowerment, access to green spaces, improved public transport, increased economic opportunities and stronger voting rights.
Such “equity-based ecological restoration will benefit both human and non-human communities,” they argue, “but only if the foundation[s] of such initiatives are rooted in anti-racist practices.”
This extends to the culture of science itself, they add.
“We will not be able to successfully assess how racism and classism shape urban ecosystems – nor address their consequences – without a truly diverse and inclusive scientific community.”
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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