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Can Michelle Wu Save Boston?

As a city of high inequality faces rising tides, the newly elected mayor charts a path to solving both problems simultaneously.

Michelle Wu smiles, walking past supporters.
Allison Dinner/Getty Images
Michelle Wu greets supporters at her campaign’s election night party, on November 2.

Said Abdikarim wants to show me some pictures that he took while riding Boston’s subway system. He sends me cell phone shots of an old Orange Line car in which sections of the wall and flooring appear to be rotting away—a visual symbol of broader dysfunction. “On a consistent basis, we deal with delays for hours, train issues, and having to catch a bus,” Abdikarim, an engineer and social entrepreneur, says. The rider fares and portion of state sales tax revenue that fund the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority haven’t allowed the public transit system to keep up with a growing backlog of repairs and upgrades. Riders regularly endure signal failures, disabled trains, and derailments.

But Abdikarim keeps riding the Orange Line—as do his kids, who take it to get to school. “I’m trying to live by example for my kids and teach them to use public transportation,” he says. “To be more friendly to the environment.”

I thought about Abdikarim as I disembarked from a train with screeching brakes at Back Bay station on Tuesday night. In September, an escalator at this station malfunctioned in nightmarish fashion, the steps flattening into a slide that sent people tumbling down onto the train platform. One onlooker recalled seeing “blood everywhere.”

Bounding up the stairs and out into the night, I ambled along the brick sidewalks of Back Bay and the South End, past Victorian brownstones. These were two of Boston’s priciest neighborhoods in 2020, with median home sales of $1.4 million and $975,000, respectively.

I was walking to Michelle Wu’s victory party: Already, polls strongly suggested she would be Boston’s next mayor—the first woman of color ever to hold the role. Wu has served as a Boston city councilor since 2014—I got to know her while reporting on transit issues for Boston magazine, traveling across the state entirely by buses and trains. But these days she’s known nationally as the politician who kicked off her mayoral campaign by unveiling an unusually ambitious and detailed Green New Deal for the City of Boston. And just like the national Green New Deal framework popularized by climate organizers from groups like the Sunrise Movement, Wu’s city-size climate resilience plan hinges on bringing social justice to a city with a long history of inequality.

High-tide projections from the city’s Climate Ready Boston initiative show that by the year 2070, the streets I was walking could be underwater. Boston’s downtown core is vulnerable to encroaching seawater. So are beachside enclaves like East Boston, home to some of the city’s largest Hispanic communities, where the off-and-on roar of 737s landing next door at Logan Airport fades into the audible churn of the Atlantic Ocean.

While they’ll soon face ecological displacement, Bostonians have already been soaked by market-driven displacements, as rents and home prices soar amid housing scarcity. The wealth and homeownership gaps between white and Black Bostonians persist, after decades of racist housing and lending policies. Those who’ve managed to secure affordable housing stock are uniquely exposed: A study by Climate Central found that Boston has the nation’s third-highest number of affordable housing units that are structurally vulnerable to coastal flooding. As Boston’s next mayor, Wu will have to address Boston’s climate and economic crises in tandem.

An aerial view of Boston and some of its most vulnerable neighborhoods: downtown Boston at top right, South Boston top center, Logan Airport mid-center with East Boston to the right, and the city of Winthrop below
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The line items in Wu’s Green New Deal are ambitious enough to draw national attention to the Boston mayoral race (Boston’s first to feature two women as the final candidates). The goalposts include achieving 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2040, repairing and retrofitting buildings to reduce emissions, growing a “green work force” to maintain the city’s new climate-friendly infrastructure, planting more trees and greenery to eradicate heat islands, and divesting from not just fossil fuel companies but also private prisons and gun manufacturers. This reflects the overlying theme of the national Green New Deal movement—climate-era equity. Wu’s plan calls for “decommodifying housing” by reforming Boston’s zoning procedures, instituting rent control in Boston, and seed-funding permanently affordable cooperative housing and community land trusts. Fare-free public transportation, renovated and funded more directly by the state, would also be a pillar of the Boston Green New Deal.

But one of the most intriguing features of Wu’s Green New Deal framework is its prescription for a Justice Audit. The City’s Equity and Inclusion Office would analyze “internal municipal processes, hiring, decision-making, leadership, budgets, and communications,” soliciting community input to determine what local racial and economic disparities are being made worse with public investment. The end result would be a “local justice framework” that informs decision-making at city hall, including Boston’s next steps toward climate resilience.

Jeff Rosenblum, an urban planner specializing in transportation, sees the Green New Deal as a meeting point for groups and communities that have been historically siloed from one another—often by systemic forces such as redlining and car-centric transit design. “Right now, there are not a lot of good connections between people who are good thinkers and activists around housing, and people who are good thinkers and activists around transportation,” Rosenblum told me earlier this week. “That is starting to grow, and I think the Green New Deal that Michelle Wu has introduced gives these two groups an opportunity to figure that out, under the auspices of climate.”

Rosenblum pointed to precedent in Boston’s People Before Highways movement of the 1960s, wherein a multiracial coalition of environmental and labor activists stopped the state from erecting a 12-lane highway through residential neighborhoods. But the activists didn’t just stop the highway: They also pressured then-Governor Francis Sargent to secure federal funding for public transportation development, such as extending Boston’s subway lines.

While Wu can now boast a national roster of endorsements, Boston activists say her team solicited plenty of local input. “Michelle’s policy team came to us multiple times and said, ‘What are your priorities, and how can we work together to meet them?’” said Jonathan Waldmann, an organizer with Sunrise Boston. “We have a lot of policy proposals, whether it’s about affordable housing or heat islands. I think in a solid partnership, we’re able to voice those concerns to Wu’s team once she’s in office and, ideally, she’s able to translate them into legislative action.”

Unlike prior Boston mayors, Wu’s journey didn’t begin in Boston. The daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, Wu grew up on Chicago’s South Side. While a U.S. Presidential Scholarship took her to New England and Harvard College, she returned to Chicago to raise her younger siblings when their mother’s mental health began to decline. Wu used some of her savings to open a tea shop that her mother might be able to run. But dealing with the bureaucracy of Chicago’s municipal government, as a caregiver and a small-business owner, forced Wu to move the family to Boston, where her mother received better health care. Wu there enrolled in law school—she would later serve as the constituency director on her former law professor Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign.

Elected to Boston’s city council in 2013, and eventually becoming Boston’s first Asian-American council president, Wu led the charge to regulate short-term Airbnb rentals in the city, on the grounds that they were driving up rent prices by taking housing stock out of Boston’s tight market.* She also advocated for making Boston’s public transit system fare-free—to curb car traffic and vehicular pollution but also to put more places of commerce and recreational spaces within reach of lower-income communities. It’s a concept that Boston is now piloting, with a free bus route servicing the multiracial working-class neighborhoods of Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester.

Some of Wu’s popularity—throughout the mayoral race she sustained a commanding lead above her more center-left competitors—may come from how her unabashedly populist housing and transit platform is presented against a stark backdrop of climate crisis: a dark future that Bostonians have become used to glimpsing in sea level rise projections. It’s one thing to plan for submerged streets in Back Bay and East Boston, but quite another to ensure that Boston’s poorest residents aren’t left to tread water. Wu’s Green New Deal is an off-ramp for Boston residents who don’t want to experience a racially and economically stratified climate dystopia. On Tuesday, Boston voters decided to take it.

Wu will now face tremendous pressure to carry through on her plans to make the city more sustainable and equitable. Boston housing remains in full-blown crisis mode—affirmed recently by sweeps of tent encampments on two of Boston’s busiest streets, Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Bostonians are also heading into a winter of inflated heating bills, as oil and natural gas prices surge. Binx Perino, a Dorchester-based student and housing advocate in Boston’s homelessness services, recalls being shocked by the costs of living year-round in Boston when they moved to the city from Texas. “During my first winter, I paid for my heating at a consistent rate, and while that option was helpful when I had low income, I ended up in debt to National Grid,” Perino told me.

This common squeeze for Boston residents could be alleviated by Wu’s proposal to build renewable energy infrastructure like community solar farms and help property owners cover the cost of converting their building energy systems to renewables. The city could work toward this by taking advantage of Boston’s enviable bond rating and issuing Green Municipal Bonds to fund the transition to clean energy. These bonds have already been used by U.S. cities to fund water infrastructure projects. But these policies probably won’t take effect in time to lower this winter’s bills.

The more conspicuous elements of Wu’s Green New Deal—rent stabilization, funding fare-free public transportation with a modest state gas tax increase—would require more than a willing mayor and City Council. The Massachusetts legislature would have to be pushed to underwrite some of these policies.

Wu’s opponents have pointed this problem out repeatedly. But the “pie in the sky” critics may misunderstand the calculus that Wu seems to be making here. Her mayoral bid is based on the idea that offering actionable ideas for changing the daily life of Bostonians in the near term will then build consensus and momentum for loftier, regional policies within the plan. “When we talk about big issues like climate justice, of course that involves global and statewide implications,” Wu told The Boston Globe. “But it’s also how we double our street-tree canopy to clean the air. It’s converting to electric school buses. All of these issues at the city level start from the day-to-day impacts on people’s lives.”

One development that models this piece-by-piece approach is Boston’s first center-running bus lane, which opened on Columbus Avenue last week. It snakes from the leafy picnic quads of Franklin Park to the cacophonous bus and subway hub of Jackson Square. The lane reclaims city space from cars and reallocates it to one of the multimodal transportation options called for in Wu’s Green New Deal. It’s a tangible step toward the ambitious climate resilience plan that Wu has built her campaign upon.

And that’s the other thing that might explain Wu’s electoral rise. Unlike many mayoral candidates, Wu actually has a plan to address the climate crisis and inequality crises at scale. Is it achievable? We’ll find out soon enough, but the policies in the Green New Deal are rooted in real-life test cases that other cities have run with.

When I finally made it to the Wu campaign’s victory soiree at the Cyclorama Building, there was a long queue of supporters piling up at the door. Inside, the dome-shaped skylight was aglow with purple—the color of Wu’s campaign—and a chatty crowd gathered before the main stage, nursing lagers and merlot. Wu was en route. She had last been seen with voters in Roxbury when the polls closed at 8 p.m. As people waited for the first round of vote results to come in, you could sense a trepidation amid the banter and music. What if the polls were off? Or … what if they were right?

The implications of a Wu victory wouldn’t be without precedent for Boston. It’s a city of many firsts. Shared green spaces and public parks began here. Why not a model for climate equity?

* A previous version of this article misstated that Michelle Wu was Boston’s first Asian-American city council member.