What You Need to Know About the Boston Green New Deal

City Councilor Michelle Wu offers an ambitious vision for an equitable and carbon-free Boston – and offers lessons for other communities throughout New England.

Photo: Back Bay, Boston via iStock

Despite the gridlock that has plagued Washington politics for the last decade, one of the policies most rallied around is the Green New Deal. This piece of sweeping climate legislation was proposed by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey. The legislation is an ambitious framework to cut fossil fuel output and transition to a cleaner, more just economy – but federal action will be an uphill battle in the near term.

Local governments have taken up the rallying cry and are offering their own proposals for a greener and more just future. Last month, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu released her Planning for a Green New Deal & Just Recovery.

A plan should represent a city’s values, its aspirations, and what it could be in the coming decades. It also should reflect the hopes of a community for its future, especially in a time of uncertainty and future recovery like the one we are living through now.

Councilor Wu’s plan does all of these things, and it’s a vision that CLF supports. This Green New Deal highlights the need for the city to transition away from fossil fuels, prepare for the effects of climate change, and recover from the pandemic. But, importantly, it also outlines how the city can do this work with justice, equity, and a commitment to deep engagement with the city’s people.

Why Does Boston Need a Green New Deal?

Many of our daily experiences in Boston result from policy choices: the limbo MBTA riders wait in during a delay, the heat radiating off the pavement on an August afternoon, the pollution lingering in the air near the highway, and the winter draft chilling a poorly insulated home. All are taken as commonplace – a mundane reality for so many people living and working here.

But these experiences are more than inconveniences. They can amount to lost wages or jobs, hospitalizations and heat-related illnesses, an increased susceptibility to COVID-19, and astronomical gas bills. What’s more, histories of housing segregation and discrimination ensure that these problems are most often imposed on poor, immigrant, Black or other neighborhoods of color. 

Too often we assume that these problems (and their history) simply come with city life – that there’s no other way for the city to exist. That’s why, in reimagining a decarbonized, climate-resilient, and recovered Boston, it is essential to reimagine the city’s values.

The Boston Green New Deal Is for All Bostonians

This resetting of the city’s values is what the Boston Green Deal aims to achieve. Importantly, it asserts that all residents of the City of Boston should have access to safe, climate-resilient, and affordable neighborhoods, and that achieving this goal requires deliberate effort. And, while many plans emphasize the importance of equitable public participation, the policies put forth in the plan go beyond just including and inviting residents to participate in policy making.

Decarbonization, climate adaptation, and pandemic recovery will require a mass mobilization of resources. For this reason, the goal of the transition away from fossil fuels cannot just be the mathematical reduction of emissions. Rather, when the city deploys resources and reconfigures policies to meet these challenges, it must direct them to those communities that will be affected most severely by climate change – which are the very same communities that already experience environmental, racial, and social injustice: demonstrably Black, immigrant, and low-income neighborhoods.

What’s in Boston’s Green New Deal?

The Boston Green New Deal covers a broad swath of city life, with too many policy recommendations for us to discuss in detail. But we especially want to highlight the following areas, and applaud the efforts of Councilor Wu’s office in calling attention to these critical issues:

  • Transportation justice. The plan emphasizes the importance of transportation access, pedestrian and cyclist travel, and streetscape design to encourage residents to reduce their reliance on cars. Not only will this help reduce travel-related carbon pollution, it also will make the city a safer, healthier, and more just place to live by lowering toxic air pollution from cars. In addition to street-level improvements, the Boston Green New Deal also proposes that the City advocate at the state level for low-income and free fares on the MBTA, plus additional resources and revenue for transportation – work that CLF is actively engaged in, as well.
  • Transparent and thoughtful public processes. For too long, everyday residents have been left out of the City’s complex and opaque processes for the review and approval of new development. The Boston Green New Deal includes several prescriptions to address this problem. For example, the plan proposes a Justice Audit for city policies. This would require officials to evaluate how City actions affect racial disparities. For example, the Seaport was developed using public money from all Bostonians and Commonwealth residents, but created a homogenously white neighborhood. A Justice Audit might have ensured a more equitable and diverse Seaport. The plan also seeks to create clearer and standardized Community Benefits Agreements – agreements between the City and developers that stipulate how new development must benefit the neighborhood it’s located in.
  • Urban tree canopy restoration. Trees and vegetation are an essential part of a safe, healthy, neighborhood that can better withstand the impacts of climate change. They not only cool neighborhoods through dangerously hot summers, but also improve air quality. The importance of preserving and adding to the city’s tree canopy cannot be understated. Community advocacy along Melnea Cass Boulevard and national-level research shows that canopy coverage is also tied to longstanding planning histories, segregation, and housing discrimination. However, the level of tree canopy varies greatly by neighborhood – with lower-income neighborhoods of color having far fewer trees than wealthier, white neighborhoods. The plan proposes the creation of priority zones where the urban canopy is lacking for planting, maintenance, and programming. This thinking is in line with the city’s planning for an urban forest.
  • Accelerated transformation to a carbon-free economy. Investment in community-controlled renewable energy, retrofits, and green building is essential for the city to accelerate its decarbonization goals.

The Boston Green New Deal also highlights the need for strengthening tenants’ rights, creating green jobs, putting resources towards long-term housing affordability, and divesting from fossil fuel investments at the municipal level. As we seek to permanently eliminate climate-damaging fossil fuels from our economy, this plan provides real mechanisms for implementing this big-picture resolution and its necessary ambitions.

We urge you to spend some time reviewing the Boston Green New Deal, even if you don’t live in the city. While some policy solutions are specific to a city of Boston’s size and scope, others offer ideas for communities of any size to follow.

And for those of you who do live within Boston, you can voice your support by attending your City Council meetings, following your councilors on social media, and letting them know that you want the City to sign on now.

The Green New Deal may be stalled on the federal level, but it’s always been local governments that move the needle on progress and have immediate, concrete impacts on our lives. Councilor Wu’s proposal is a great example of local action in the face of federal inertia, and it offers an ambitious vision for Boston’s future.

Before you go... CLF is working every day to create real, systemic change for New England’s environment. And we can’t solve these big problems without people like you. Will you be a part of this movement by considering a contribution today? If everyone reading our blog gave just $10, we’d have enough money to fund our legal teams for the next year.