Michelle Wu was fuming. The late afternoon June sun roasted the elementary school basketball court in Boston’s Chinatown. There was hardly a tree in sight. But car exhaust seeped down like mist from the towering concrete canopy of a traffic-clogged highway overhead.
This, the Boston city councilwoman thought, was a place where kids were supposed to exercise and play. Instead, it’s where they became statistics.
Asian Americans in Massachusetts breathe air 26% more polluted by tiny disease-causing particles from cars and power plants than the state average, a Union of Concerned Scientists study found last year. Black people in the state breathe air that’s 24% more polluted than average, and Latinos breathe air that is 17% more polluted. It’s only a glimpse of the crises that today grip New England’s largest city.
Rising tides lap at Boston’s low-lying coast, already causing more sunny-day flooding than in almost any other U.S. city, according to federal estimates. Between 2013 and 2017, Boston became the nation’s third-most “intensely gentrified” city as aging housing stock failed to keep up with demand and monied newcomers lured by a booming biotech industry displaced working-class residents.
As global warming and its associated economic impacts worsen, the city’s own reports seem to suggest that a place that’s home to universities producing tomes of research on climate change has been caught flat-footed by the severity of the crisis at hand.
On Monday, Wu is set to unveil her plan to get out front again.
In a 43-page manifesto, Wu sets out what she calls a Boston Green New Deal and pitches a plan to bring the city back from the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and erode age-old racial barriers.
“I’m a mom, and I have two boys, they’re 3 and 5,” Wu, 35, told HuffPost by phone last Friday. “I want more than a coin flip’s chance for my two boys to be able to live on this planet and enjoy it.”
It’s a bold proposal from a third-term progressive firebrand often compared to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and considered a possible candidate for mayor next year.
The proposal outlines a sweeping rezoning of the city to increase neighborhood density, build cheap cooperative housing and add parks. It envisions fleets of free-to-ride electric buses, hundreds of intersecting bike lanes and car-free walking districts. It imagines the kind of New Deal-era public spending unheard of in American cities since austerity took hold in the 1970s. And it could be paid for with new taxes on predatory landlords and excessive water use, a city budget vastly expanded by green bonds, and ― Wu hopes ― a new federal administration in Washington.
“The pandemic has really revealed just how fragile the status quo is,” Wu said.
The plan borrows from proposals in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Austin, Texas, to lavish leafy green spaces on poor, segregated neighborhoods where minorities have suffered the brunt of pollution. It cribs anti-racism programs from Madison, Wisconsin, Long Beach, California, and Seattle. It covets the clean-electricity mandates in Kansas City, Missouri, Munich, Germany, and Vancouver, Canada.
The wish list-like manifesto follows a playbook. Since it entered the national political lexicon last year, the Green New Deal has been an organizing strategy against the decades of cuts to public services, deference to industry and demonization of government that left the United States systemically incapable of responding to the threat of climate change.
Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution in Congress staking out the Green New Deal’s core, justice-oriented principles, Wu proposed legislation to endorse the national framework. The Boston City Council approved the proposal in April 2019.
Her latest document is fastidiously footnoted. Each section lists one to six examples of policies underway in other, similarly-sized U.S. or European cities. Portland, Oregon, has an equitable tree-planting plan. Philadelphia bought vacant lots and turned them into urban farming plots. Neighboring Lawrence, Massachusetts, offers fare-free bus routes. Why can’t Boston?
It helps that the plan also bullets out additional ideas that already fall under Boston’s municipal purview. Executing the entire plan would almost certainly require both a sweeping electoral mandate and help from state and federal agencies. But much of what’s proposed can be done with existing city powers.
On Monday, Wu plans to introduce a resolution calling for City Council hearings on the plan. She’s set to hold online rallies with Sunrise Movement and 350.org ― two grassroots climate groups backing Green New Deal efforts nationally ― as part of the proposal’s rollout.
She declined to say whether she plans to run for the city’s top job next year. Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat, has not yet said whether he’ll seek a third term next year. Challenging him could be difficult. A poll taken amid the pandemic shows he’s popular with voters. Boston has yet to elect a mayor who isn’t white and male.
Wu, a Chicago native and daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, has a record of firsts. She was the first person of Taiwanese descent and the first Asian woman ever elected to the city council, and the first nonwhite woman to serve as the body’s president.
“We can be thought of as a city that’s so proud of traditions and set in our historic, New England ways,” Wu said. “But in fact, our history is one of civic leadership.”
Boston, she said, has the country’s oldest public schools, public parks and public libraries because “we were the first to invest in the common good in that way.”
A Green New Deal like hers, then, “is very much in line with Boston’s legacy as a city,” she said. “It reflects that it’s time for impatient leadership.”