Air Quality Effect on Covid-19

A Data Visualization Project

Data Visualization: Mapping Prejudice Project Context

During the fall of 2020, eleven St. Kate’s students took a new course: DSCI 2994: Data Visualization. In the course, we discussed how we perceive information visually, how to create effective and informative visuals, and how to interpret data visualizations to tell a story. The course incorporated community-engaged work with Welcoming the Dear Neighbor? and Mapping Prejudice to examine – and make visual- the hidden history of systemic racism within housing in the form of racial covenants written into housing deeds. After first learning about the history of racial covenants, we spent some class time transcribing housing deeds from Ramsey County. We also engaged in a lesson about spatial reasoning (created by Marguerite Mills from the Mapping Prejudice team) to ask and answer questions about spatial associations between locations of covenants, historically redlined areas, and recent data about contemporary segregation, population with less than 9th grade education, population in poverty, and other variables. Additionally, we examined spatial relationships between historically redlined areas and neighborhood COVID-19 risk factors thanks to a map provided by the Wilder Foundation
These lessons provided a starting point for a major project in the second half of the semester, in which students explored and chose topics of interest related to long-term impacts of redlining and racial covenants. Students were placed into project groups based on topic of interest. The five chosen topics were air Quality/Covid-19, education inequities, special education access, policing, and wealth. The students’ project was to find and examine data related to their topic, and compare this to the map of racial covenants in Hennepin County, to tell a visual story answering the question: “Why do racial covenants matter today?” The final product of this project is a blog post to be shared here with you!  Over the next few weeks, we will share the stories created by our students to shed light on the lasting effects of racial covenants.
– Dr. Elizabeth Brondos Fry, instructor of the Data Visualization class

Air Quality Effect on Covid-19

by Janelle Guse, Iris Carroll, Erica Pronschinske
DSCI 2994 Data Visualization class, Fall 2020, Dr. Elizabeth Brondos Fry

Racial Covenants in Minneapolis Today

The Mapping Prejudice project and the documentary, Jim Crow of the North, show how institutionalized racism in the form of racial covenants have affected Minneapolis neighborhoods. Though the practice of making some houses off limits to people of certain races was made unenforceable years ago, the patterns it created in our neighborhoods persist. As shown in this Bloomberg article, the historically covenanted areas remain predominantly white while people of color are concentrated in communities that were eventually redlined.

For this project, we examined data on air quality and Covid-19 cases from Open Minneapolis.

COVID-19 Relation to Racial Covenants

Looking at maps like those in the Bloomberg article shows that housing segregation still exists despite the discontinuation of racial covenants. We can see the present-day ramifications of this segregation in the health disparities that exist in neighborhoods with a history of racial covenants.. The biggest health concern right now is, of course, COVID-19. By looking at the data, we can see that the virus disproportionally affects communities of color.

In this graph, each circle represents one neighborhood and its size is related to the total population for that neighborhood. The fairly strong positive correlation shows that neighborhoods that have higher proportions of people of color also have higher proportions of COVID-19 cases. This shows that communities of color are more impacted by COVID-19. We can see this even more clearly in the graph below.

This visualization shows the same graph as before in inclusion to a map showing the neighborhoods on the scatterplot shaded according to COVID-19 cases per capita (the total number of cases for each neighborhood divided by the total population of the same area). It is important to use this measure instead of the total number of cases because a graph using that measure would simply highlight the neighborhoods with the highest populations, considering more people automatically means more cases. By adjusting for population, we get a better picture of the severity of COVID-19 in different places. Additionally, the map gives a geographic picture of where the virus is most concentrated. We see that the areas closer to the center of Minneapolis tend to have higher rates of COVID-19. We know from the scatter plot that these same areas also tend to be the neighborhoods with more residents of color. Knowing that neighborhoods with higher proportions of residents of color tend to be ones that didn’t have covenants, we can assume that areas previously covenanted line up with regions less affected by COVID-19. This map shows that that is the case.

The small black boxes show where housing covenants were and the color shows COVID-19 cases per capita. The areas with fewer cases per capita are shaded a lighter blue and are generally the ones with more covenants. Overall, this tells the story that racial covenants in the past now determine which communities are most impacted by COVID-19.

Air-Quality Relation to Racial Covenants

Along with racial covenants having an effect on COVID-19, we can also see the effect they have on air quality. In looking at the graph below we can see that places that were historically covenanted are less likely to have air quality complaints.

The small black boxes once again represent covenanted properties and each orange dot represents one air quality complaint. As can be seen, in 2019 there were more air quality complaints in areas not historically covenanted. Of course, correlation does not imply causation. For example, both high rates of COVID-19 cases and poor air quality might be caused by high population density. It is hard to tell what causes what, but there is a correlation that strongly hints at a relationship between better air quality and racial covenants.

Air-Quality Relation to COVID-19

Through seeing the connection between racial covenants and COVID-19 in addition to racial covenants and air quality we began to wonder if there could be a relationship between poor air quality and the virus, considering COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. Areas where COVID-19 rapidly spreads and results in more hospitalizations tend to have poor air quality when compared to areas where the virus is less prevalent. This could be the result of several variables depending on the area and the person, but the correlation between COVID-19’s severity and poor air quality should be noted.

Institutional Racism Effects on Health

According to the data, there is a definite link between institutionalized racism and health concerns. Today, it is clear that areas historically developed without racial covenants have larger populations of color, higher rates of COVID-19 cases, and poorer air quality in the present. Seeing how poor air quality correlates to a higher risk of contraction of COVID-19 and areas with poorer air quality in Minneapolis are historically not covenanted, it is possible to draw a line between health risks from respiratory diseases and racial covenants.

Why Do Racial Covenants Matter Today?

The overall story told by all the visualizations and articles shows that racial covenants have left an impact in the Minneapolis area in many ways. Based on the graphs it is evident that these once covenanted areas have lower cases of COVID-19 better air quality when compared to historically un-covenanted areas. This information draws a direct line between health and race. So yes, racial covenants do still matter today.

The Past Meets the Present

by Rachel Neiwert

Plat book of the city of Saint Paul, Minn. and suburbs / compiled for and under the direction of the St. Paul Real Estate Board. Philadelphia : G.M. Hopkins Co., 1916. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

In 2004, my husband and I moved to Minnesota. I was starting a Ph.D. program in history at the University of Minnesota and he was starting a new job as a chemistry professor. We were excited for the many new adventures the move promised, but also because we planned to buy our very first house. We planned a June trip to the Twin Cities to find our home. In preparation, we looked online at houses and talked with people who lived here about neighborhoods, commutes, and the houses we were finding online. We were so excited and, I realize now, so naïve. As we looked at houses in June 2004, I imagined that the only constraint we faced was what we could afford. It was a mark of my privilege as a white, middle-class woman that I imagined this to be the only barrier. It never occurred to me to imagine that I would not be welcomed in the neighborhood we moved into and even though, I was starting a graduate program in history, I never considered the ways that history shaped the composition of the neighborhoods where we looked at houses.

St. Paul and the communities and neighborhoods that make up Ramsey County are indelibly shaped by race. Like many cities and counties across the United States, Ramsey County has a history of racist housing practices that defined some neighborhoods as only for white people, but this is not generally the story that we like to tell about ourselves. We barely talk about the fact that, of course, the land that St. Paul and its surrounding suburbs sits on, was land that belonged to the Dakota people, who were displaced to make room for white settlers. We might talk about race and housing inequality when we remember the events that led to the demolition of significant sections of the Rondo Neighborhood to make space for I-94. When we limit our stories to Rondo, it allows us to put a tidy bow around racism and locate it in a single place and a single historical moment, rather than recognizing the fact that racism was and is a horrifically influential factor in how Ramsey County developed.

Racial covenants, mob violence, redlining, neighborhood associations, predatory lending practices—these were all tools used by white people to create neighborhoods as white spaces and to work against integration, for inequality, and to make equity harder to achieve. The “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?” project at St. Kate’s is working to uncover these stories that many white people in Ramsey County would prefer to forget or at least ignore. We want to understand why it is that today roughly 75% of white families in the metro area own their own homes, but only 25% of Black families own their own home. We want to consider all the impacts of the disparity in home ownership on the wealth gap, on educational outcomes, and general health and well-being. We want to understand the history that led us to this place. The stories page of our website is a place where faculty, staff, students, and community members can share what they are learning about racism and housing inequality in Ramsey County.

Check back every two weeks for a new post sharing what we are learning—it might be stories from the archives or student projects or discussions of data, health or education.