Red Lines and Brown Fields: The Racialized Legacy of Urban School Siting

Research and mapping conducted through Mutlimedia Mapping supported by RISD Department of Architecture // 2022

Map 1: Population density cluster based on U.S. Census Bureau‘s 2020 Population by Race dataset. Also shown are geolocated brownfield sites as reported by the NEPA alongside major interstate thoroughfares and permitted industrial zones. Yellow buildings represent public and private educational instituions. Generated by author through QGIS.

Fig. 1 

During the Great Depression, the Home Owners Loan Corporation commissioned maps guiding home lending institutions and preventing non-white racial and ethnic groups from establishing residence in some neighborhoods. Neighborhoods designated undesirable for lenders were outlined in red on these maps, and the practice is now known as “redlining” (Wilson, 2008). While redlining was outlawed under the Fair Housing Act in 1968 (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2007), recent research suggests that individual, institutional, and policy-level practices perpetuate systematic segregation of minority groups in the United States (US) (Massey and Denton, 1993); and that similar current and historic practices (e.g. redlining, racial restrictive building covenants, gentrification, predatory lending, etc.) resulted in lasting impacts on the poverty, living environment, and health of current residents (Bailey et al., 2017, Beyer et al., 2016, Jacoby et al., 2017, Massey and Denton, 1993, Mendez et al., 2011, Mendez et al., 2012, Mendez et al., 2014, Squires, 2017, Zhou et al., 2017).

The Home Owners Loan Corporation practiced redlining in many US cities, including Detroit (Berkovec et al., 1994), and Detroit has a history of dramatic social, economic and racial/ethnic compositional changes over time, making it an important site for investigating the role of historical housing discrimination in shaping communities’ health. During World War II, the population and economy of Detroit grew rapidly with the auto industry and manufacturing demands of the War (Krugman, 1991). However, industrial decentralization in the 1950s and reductions in demand, coupled with racial discrimination in housing practices beginning in the 1920s, ultimately weakened the resources and physical quality of many Detroit neighborhoods (Lichter et al., 2015, Sugrue, 1996). Detroit's Home Owners Loan Corporation map is shown in Fig. 1, with the green sections outlining the areas of lowest financial risk, followed by blue then yellow, and finally red areas deemed to be high risk (Dwyer, 2014). Residents of redlined neighborhoods received fewer resources, limiting the economic mobility of minority families (Berkovec et al., 1994, Zenou and Boccard, 2000).


The stories of individual neighborhoods exemplify the complexity of discriminatory housing processes perpetuating segregation (Massey and Denton, 1993). The city's “8 Mile Wall,” was constructed in 1940 after the Federal Housing Administration refused to back a loan to build a housing development bordering a Black community. The loan was approved upon construction of the 6-foot tall wall (Clemens, 2006, Sugrue, 1996). The racial compositions of the surrounding neighborhoods have changed, but a divide in resources and economic opportunity remains. While parts of the wall are still standing, activists have painted them and stripped the wall of its role as a racial divider (Ulmer, 2016). In contrast, many redlined neighborhoods were later subjected to urban renewal programs through the Federal Housing Act in 1949, which empowered government agencies to identify blighted properties for repurposing under eminent domain. Urban renewal programs displaced nearly one million Americans, an overwhelming proportion of whom were individuals of minority race or ethnicity (Fullilove and Wallace, 2011). Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood was one of the only neighborhoods in which Black families could establish residence before the Fair Housing Act, and it was one of the first areas cited for an urban renewal program. Nearly all of Black Bottom's residents were displaced, and current real estate in the neighborhood is largely highly priced (Williams, 2009). Both redlining and urban renewal exacerbated segregation in Detroit (Lichter et al., 2015) and precipitated disparities in neighborhood health and economic opportunity over time. Many formerly redlined neighborhoods are still under resourced, and others have gentrified (Sugrue, 1996), complicating estimation of a homogeneous effect of redlining on current environments and health.

Dillon Foster