Boston has recently witnessed a dramatic shift in the annals of its mayoral history. A shift toward an administration that puts a spotlight on environmental justice, headed by a woman, person of color, mother and millennial all for the first time: Michelle Wu.
Julian Agyeman is a Tufts professor of urban and environmental policy and planning and a professor of rhetoric and debate at The Fletcher School. He also served as an advisor on Mayor Wu’s transition committee, providing guidance for a myriad of intersecting areas including food justice and social equity.
Agyeman points to the growing gap between the rich and the poor as a key problem in Boston and all cities in the Western world.
“Remember that the Boston Globe did a survey and we found that the average African American family’s net worth was $8 and the average for a white family was $247,000. That’s plain wrong,” he said.
He noted that problems such as climate change, income inequality, unequal access to transportation and issues with food security are not unrelated.
“These issues are … related in the sense that they are the sum total of planning systems [and] policymaking that has not centered equity and social justice,“ Agyeman said.
According to Agyeman, Boston lacks adequate transportation infrastructure that could provide equal access to all. He connected this to economic decline in the region.
“Several companies have said that access and transportation issues are very, very important, and that if they can’t get that in the Boston region, then [they] will move somewhere,“ Agyeman said. “All these companies are footloose in many ways nowadays and they move to places where public transit is cheaper or roads are better.”
Penn Loh, director of the Master of Public Policy Program and Community Practice at Tufts’ Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, highlighted the threat of gentrification and displacement in many of Boston’s neighborhoods. However, he says, Wu’s election signals a shift toward greater progress.
“Mayor Wu being elected was, in part, affirmation that voters are ready to embrace ideas like rent control again … it will help put the brakes on this continual escalation of the housing crisis that’s pushing people out,” he said.
Loh also points to how the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed weaknesses in Boston’s climate preparedness. He mentioned that several of the impacts that occurred during the pandemic, such as online school and shutdowns, would also happen under a climate disturbance.
“When you look at the pandemic … we can look to see, well, if we weren’t prepared for that, if some of those same impacts happen under climate disturbances, then we’re not prepared for climate [disturbances] either,” Loh said.
Loh is interested in understanding how community responses to the pandemic are helping to build resilience within Boston.
“We heard from a lot of community organizations … that the city did not have the capacities to actually reach people, that they had to develop new partnerships and rely a lot on grassroots organizations who did have those relationships and means of communication and trust with various populations,” he said.
Having pivoted from a background in electrical engineering, Loh spoke about technology in the context of climate change.
“It’s not that we don’t know how to avoid climate change … we have technologies that can work. We know how to do things without fossil fuels,” Loh said. “So it’s not a technology problem. It’s not a lack of technology. It’s a lack of political will, and the social systems to actually use them.”
Mayor Wu has a vision for a citywide Green New Deal.
“Our work focuses on achieving carbon neutrality while working to mitigate and prepare for the effects of climate change, including flooding, sea level rise, and extreme weather,” a spokesperson for the Wu administration wrote in an email to the Daily. “We also preserve the integrity of Boston’s cultural and historic resources.”
Reflecting on his experience as a transition advisor, Agyeman said, “[Wu’s] policy platforms were the product of a lot of discussion amongst a lot of people. My food justice class itself had an input to the food justice agenda.”
Wu also faces the task of reshaping the mayor’s relationships with traditional actors in Boston politics.
“Developers have [historically] been in the pocket of the mayor. We’re going to be changing that … let’s put communities and their wishes into the mix of ideas about what development looks like, rather than it just being some wealthy, often faceless LLCs,” Agyeman said.
However, Mayor Wu’s initiatives haven’t been immune to pushback.
“[Mayor Wu] was criticized a lot for having ideas that were too idealistic and ambitious,” Loh said.
A pertinent example is her Free the T project, which has been running as a pilot for the past year now, experimenting with removing fares for some of the most crowded bus lines. Critics find it infeasible, since the MBTA is a state agency that reports to the governor, not the city of Boston.
“I think it’s very, very important for a mayor to take a stand because … the city of Boston is the hub of where the T is trying to get a lot of people back and forth from,” said Loh. “Even though [the MBTA] is a state agency, [it] still has some accountability and needs to meet the needs of the people in this city.”
Agyeman, who is originally from the U.K., explained the difference between urban planning in U.S. and the U.K.
“[In the U.S.], urban planning is the spatial toolkit of white supremacy … that’s not the case in the U.K.,” Agyeman said. “There is racism … but what’s very different is that urban planning in the U.K. was never seen as a tool of white supremacy [as it is in the U.S.].”
He also mentioned the difference in the kind of inequality found in both U.S. and U.K. neighborhoods.
“There are unequal neighborhoods [in the U.K.], of course, but it’s more of a socioeconomic unequalness than that of one that was pre-programmed through policy, federal and local, around race [as there is in the U.S.],” Agyeman said.
In the United States, discriminatory urban planning has created cities which, according to Agyeman, are segregated and unequally provisioned in terms of park spaces, access to nutritious and culturally appropriate foods and physically unified neighborhoods.
Historically underrepresented students will now be able to pursue the fields of public policy and planning through the new racial equity in policy and planning master’s degree program at Tufts, funded by a grant from the Barr Foundation.
Agyeman recalls a point about how sustainable development means using our unlimited mental resources, instead of our limited natural resources.
“I’m interested in local narratives of change. ‘What do local people think?’ … these stories are real, these are data,” he said.
Loh mentioned that many individuals find themselves overwhelmed when thinking of widespread issues like climate change.
“There can be a profound feeling of disconnect and being overwhelmed by these big global issues,” Loh said. “When you learn about these things, you’re like, ‘how can this ever be changed?’”
Nevertheless, there is power found in individual behavior and example-setting.
“All of these systems we’re talking about are produced by people and our relationship to the environment,” Loh said. “[Certain] conversations might be informing the kinds of politics that you may get involved in … the more connections we have with people, the more we can do together to solve collective problems.”
Having emerged from a historically diverse field of mayoral candidates, Wu is just one changemaker in Boston who is a beacon of hope for sustainable development.
As professor Agyeman said, “she is the leader that I’ve been teaching classes about for a long time.”