An article brought up at Kensington Renewal poses an interesting thesis: poor neighborhoods are scant of trees, while rich ones are flush with vegetation. It’s not common just in select areas, but in cities all across the globe.
But in Philadelphia, one obvious visible indicator of property maintenance: roofs, is very visible from space.
A trend that popped up in the early 2000′s and has caught on nationwide is light-colored roofing which has the most obvious monetary benefit: it significantly lowers the need to cool a building, thereby lowering the amount of electricity required to run A/C systems and lowering of utility bills.
This benefit is so strong and tangible that most owner-residents of Philadelphia have chosen to sheet their flat roofs or coat them with reflective paint in order to radiate the sun’s heat. However, in neighborhoods which are predominantly all low-income, this trend seems to have passed these areas by:
The visual impact is so obvious that it almost appears like a natural map of redlining.
I have one major theory as to why this may be: Dark roofing predominates in zones where building occupants are renting. Specifically: privately-owned low income rental. Because renters are not inclined to improve the roofing system of their building since they do not own the structure and aren’t responsible for the roof, that responsibility falls to the property owner. Because the property owner usually is not paying the electricity bill, there’s no direct incentive for the landlord to install a cool roof, as there’s no return on investment to the property owner because the owner doesn’t have a light bill to pay so long as there is a tenant inside. Further, the A/C is usually shut off or run infrequently between tenants.
While looking at all of South Philadelphia you can see this plainly in western Point Breeze and the 5th Street corridor of South Philadelphia, the cool roof/dark roof contrast is highly visible between working class and poor neighborhoods all over Philadelphia.
In some areas you can even see neighborhood boundries from space:
What does this mean for all of us? First off is energy consumption and subsidies. A rental tenant on LIHEAP subsidies would be accruing more costs in electrical consumption in the summer than the same tenant in a building with a cool roofing system. As LIHEAP has a very limited budget, it would be foolish to ignore the savings that could be generated and at the same time the program could be expanded to capture more people to qualify for the benefit.
Another benefit is the reduction in surface temperature in areas dominated by a combination of vegetation and light roofing systems. These two effects have the benefit of creating a more hospitable and more visually beautiful and healthy environment at the same time.
As the broken window theory suggests: when the environment is well-cared for and maintained (including buildings), that has a positive influence upon crime rates. By increasing greenery and reducing energy costs, that creates both a healthier and a more efficient environment for Philadelphians to live and to work.
While there are several grassroots efforts at increasing greenery around Philadelphia coming from a consortium of private and public forces and there are answers available for getting greenery added across Philadelphia, one question remains: How do we get these dark-roofed neighborhoods into cool roof neighborhoods where rental concentration is high, and there are few if any incentives for landlords to make their buildings more energy efficient?