Councilor Wu Holds Panel Discussion on Green New Deal

City Councilor Michelle Wu held a virtual panel discussion on August 20 to discuss a Green New Deal for Boston at the municipal level, where she invited several community activists to offer their viewpoints on the matter.

Wu recently released a report outlining her proposed Green New Deal for Boston, which can be found on her website. She said the “main structure” of the plan includes “why we so urgently need climate action in this moment” and why the City should act now.

Nina Schlegel, lead author of the report, said that 60 community members attended a breakfast last October to start discussing what a Green New Deal would look like for Boston.

“This report is just one step in a longer process that ultimately will come to fruition in a Green New Deal for Boston,” Schlegel said. She said the process will continue at various community hearings and events like this one. We have enormous powers; zoning powers and others that we can implement to create substantive change,” she added.

“We are living through an emergency that has widened the inequities in our communities,” Councilor Wu said, and has “compounded existing violences like classism and racism. Whenever there’s injustice in any community, it threatens us all. We’re at at turning point; we need to step up and act.”

She said a “specific city level Green New Deal” is needed to create healthy environment for all Bostonians. She said that climate justice at the city level includes things like accelerating decarbonization, clean energy financing, resilient stormwater infrastructure, and fostering a healthy urban tree canopy, according to a presentation.

“City governments by necessity must be practical, accessible, and accountable to residents,” Wu said. She said food supplies and jobs could be brought to urban neighborhoods through this plan, and it also leaves room for advocating to the state and federal governments as well.

“This is the moment to examine the failures of the status quo, to do what is right, what is moral, to change the arc of history so that the future bends towards justice as quickly as we can possibly put our energy into doing,” she said.

She said the City’s “task” is to transform systems, and systems changes should be “people centered,” democratic, justice oriented, and address the root causes of issues through a community-led process.

“Together, we can reimagine the kind of city we’ve always wanted to live in and make it happen,” Wu said. “This is all not just possible, but practical. It is what we are aiming for every day.”

Panelists in the discussion included Maya Mudgal of the Sunrise Movement, Mela Miles, transit oriented development director for Alternatives for Community and Environment, Roxana Rivera, head of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union District 615, political activist representing 350 Mass Bob Tumposky, Gabriela Cartagena of City Life/Vida Urbana, and Nina Schlegel, a Boston-based climate justice researcher and activist and the the lead author of the report.

Mudgal said she has “been really excited about the report,” and she said it’s especially important to focus on a Green New Deal at the municipal level because the city “can’t wait for federal or even the state government to get initiatives in place.”

She said, “I think local problems require local solutions and local experts.” fShe said that while she feels a federal Green New Deal is still important, “I’m really excited for Boston to lead on a municipal level.”

Miles said that while the idea behind a Green New Deal began at the national level, “locally, we need to address issues of affordable and possibly electric transportation,” she said.

She said that making sure everyone can afford access to reliable transportation and “to really get behind the electric vehicle infrastructure” is important.

“We’ve been working on looking at free public transportation and changing the whole structure so we don’t have to utilize the fare structure system,” she said. She added that focusing on zero emissions buildings “so that a green, sustainably built building is not a luxury.”

Roxana Rivera said she is “very proud to support the federal Green New Deal,” and said that the union’s late president had “encouraged and organized for our international unit (two million workers)…to come out in support of this.”

Tumposky said he believes “alliances are the key to this. We all need to work together closely on our common concerns, whether it be affordable housing; whether it be projects placed in environmental justice communities.”

Cartagena said the process really needs to be based in democracy “rather than the entitlement and arrogance that we are seeing,” citing the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and President Trump as examples. She said that “making sure people who are directly affected are in control of the decisions” is necessary.

Wu asked the panelists if there was a particular piece of the report that stuck out to them, and also what they think should be done next, as that was a question raised by many community members that signed up to be a part of the discussion.

“I think that the crucial thing is to first understand how big this is,” Trumposky said. “We need to engage the City Council with more than a majority vote.” He said bringing this to the attention to the community and city agencies in as many ways as possible would be effective.

Cartagena said that taking housing in the private market and making developments community owned could be a next step. She said a “huge issue” at the BPDA is “selling off what used to be city property to private developments,” citing the Suffolk Downs development as an example. She said those “luxury units…should have been more community rooted.”

She said that many neighborhood associations are not “prioritizing or at least talking about” this issue, and said that their agenda items focus on developments rather than ”community issues.”

Rivera said that the “pandemic is an example of why we have to live differently going forward,” and suggested that a next step could be “kind of breaking this down and using our networks in folks that we represent.”

Miles said that educating future generations on climate change and environmentally friendly structures so they “become a new north for our youth.”

Mudgal said she appreciates the “scope” of the report “and the fact that we can imagine a better city for ourselves…this proposal really sets out what Boston could be.”

Schlegel said it is difficult to pick just one aspect of the report, but she said that free transit and  the urban climate corps stand out to her the most.

“I vote that we come out of tonight ready from our own individual lens and the relationships that we have to expand those networks, to get to know your neighbors, and to get to know the City; but also to keep pushing for us to believe that we can achieve what we’re hoping for,” Wu said.

She said that this “requires a whole lot of organizing,” and her team will be keeping in touch with the community about ways people can get involved in moving this forward.

“We’re all moving in the same direction,” she said.

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