On a sunny day last November, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu ’07 waded across Dorchester’s Morrissey Boulevard to meet reporters. High tide flooding had closed the south-bound side of the three-lane highway; on the other side, cars crawled through several inches of water. Some even drove on the slightly drier sidewalk. The calf-high water threatened to overflow Wu’s black combat boots as she walked.
“I’m here with a group of leaders and activists from the climate movement in the city of Boston to mark what will be an increasingly frequent sight in our city: the regular flooding, on a beautiful, sunny day, from sea levels going up and up,” Wu said at the press conference. “We need urgent action on climate now, we need leadership, and we need a Boston Green New Deal.”
Wu, who has served on the Boston City Council since 2013, was referring to her own Green New Deal plan for the city, released last August. The 49-page policy paper, titled “Planning for a Boston Green New Deal and Just Recovery,” outlines a vision for sweeping climate action in Boston that climate activists have lauded as among the most progressive city-level policy proposals in the country. It’s part of a new wave of climate policy that emphasizes the power of smaller-scale action, even in the face of a global crisis.
Wu’s GND is also part of her Boston mayoral campaign in a race that is attracting national attention. Boston has traditionally had white, male mayors, but with former incumbent Mayor Marty J. Walsh confirmed as Labor Secretary, a seat has opened up for a new era of city leadership. As the field crowds with progressives, Wu’s GND could prove a differentiating factor.
A coastal city, Boston is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, which could cause sea levels to rise up to 3 feet in the next half century. Already, low-lying areas like Dorchester’s Morrissey Boulevard see regular flooding. Extreme heat, too, will increase in the city — days with temperatures above 90 degrees, relatively rare now, could number up to 40 per year by 2030.
To prevent these dire results, Wu’s plan sets ambitious decarbonization targets. Her plan would put the city on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2040, a full decade before Boston’s current goal.
But Wu’s plan goes beyond emissions. It also looks at climate change through the lens of environmental justice, acknowledging the connections between environmental harms and systemic inequities and outlining policies to address both. Without action, climate change will only deepen these inequities.
Neither decarbonization nor environmental justice are original concepts, but Wu’s application of them to city-level policy is visionary. Bill E. McKibben ’82, a prominent environmental activist and former president of The Crimson, says Wu’s plan puts her at the “very front of the pack” in terms of local climate policy. “It won’t be easy to implement, but she’s got the plan in place, and I was [blown] away by the depth and detail of her work,” he says.
At this critical moment for Boston, Wu’s candidacy draws from the past to envision a better future for the city. Her GND puts forth intersectional policies informed by historical environmental injustices. Wu views Boston’s progressive history as evidence that the city already has what it needs to become a national climate leader.
In her official campaign video, Wu, clad in her signature royal purple, addresses the camera: “I’m Michelle Wu, and I’m running for mayor to make Boston a city for everyone.” Beyond a platitude, her GND puts policy behind her claim to include everyone. Wu sets forth a vision of Boston as a complex yet inclusive community, one that has real power to overcome historical divisions and move towards a more just future.
Finding a New Home in Boston
Wu announced her mayoral bid in September 2020, before Walsh’s departure. Considering Boston hasn’t ousted an incumbent mayor since 1949 — after the mayor served time in federal prison — Wu was in for a challenge. She was also the first woman of color to enter the race.
Wu’s candidacy as a woman of color is not revolutionary in and of itself, but rather representative of Boston’s changing demographics. The city’s white population has dropped from 95 percent to 45 percent since 1950, and in some neighborhoods, it is now less than 10 percent. Many neighborhoods, including Roxbury and Dorchester, have majority Black and brown populations.
These demographic shifts are starting to reach the mayor’s office, too. Since Walsh’s confirmation as Labor Secretary, former city council President Kim Janey has become acting mayor, the first non-white, non-man to lead the city. Janey is a Black woman who represented Roxbury on the council. If elected, Wu would become the second woman of color to serve as mayor. The field of mayoral hopefuls has now swelled to six, of which only one is a white man.
Boston’s demographics may be changing, but there’s another factor the city has traditionally prized when choosing a mayor: nativity. Walsh and the mayor before him, Thomas M. Menino, were both born in Boston. Four of the other current mayoral candidates grew up in the city as well. In September, a survey of 400 voters conducted by GBH News found that when deciding which candidate to support for mayor, 40 percent of voters considered having grown up in Boston to be a “very important” factor. Another 23 percent said it was “somewhat important.”
Wu is originally from Chicago. And though she has spent 8 years on the city council, she is still a relative newcomer to politics, and to the city of Boston. When she first ran for city council in 2013, she had almost zero political experience. Her election was, in itself, quietly radical — at 28, she became the first Asian American woman to serve on the council. Wu’s story has been one of forming bridges between disparate places and identities — from Chicago to Boston, from Harvard-educated lawyer to city councilor.
Growing up in Chicago as the oldest of four sisters, Wu remembers being “very introverted and pretty shy,” and says she “honestly never thought of myself as a leader in any way.” Like many first-generation immigrants, Wu fell into the role of translator for her Taiwanese parents, who spoke mainly Mandarin. Navigating between the culture of her home and that of the outside world gave Wu a “visceral sense” of the barriers her parents faced, she recalls.
Getting into Harvard was as much an achievement for Wu’s family as it was for Wu herself. She says she was “less convinced” than her parents at the prospect of attending. Still, “I just knew that I would have to go, no matter how I ended up feeling about any of the schools that I got into, because it was important to my family,” she says.
Choosing her concentration was a “negotiation” with her parents to guarantee a stable career, she admits. Her top choice would have been Social Studies, she recalls, but she ultimately settled on Economics. She was “very, very busy, always,” during her four years, routinely enrolling in five classes so she could take electives in addition to concentration requirements.
“In some ways, it still felt that I had a job to do, which was to get decent grades and finish with a degree in something that could be useful,” she says, with a touch of wistfulness. “But the space that I was able to carve out for myself was through extracurriculars and friends, and creating community, finding community for myself.”
Almost every weekend, Wu says she would head down to the Red Line station in Harvard Square with a roll of slot tokens, the precursor to Charlie Cards. As the Director for the Chinatown Citizenship program, she’d hand out tokens to the other student volunteers, and board the T towards Boston to teach English classes to Chinatown residents.
Originally drawn to Chinatown because she missed her mother’s cooking, Wu quickly found a sense of community there that she hadn’t felt before. In Chicago, she says, her family always felt “like ‘other,’ out of place,” but in Chinatown, she saw herself and her family “fully reflected” in her students.
She lights up as she recalls one of her favorite memories — taking the T back from Chinatown over Longfellow Bridge. “You pass over the Charles River. You see the city skyline sparkling with the water and the Esplanade,” she describes. “And it always brings up the feelings of, ‘Now I’m coming home.’”
After graduation, Wu took a job at Boston Consulting Group, lived in the North End, and enjoyed a “blessed young professional lifestyle.” But less than a year in, she received a call from her sisters, pleading with her to fly back to Chicago — her mother was in the midst of a severe mental health crisis. Wu, then 23, became the primary caregiver for her mother and sisters.
In a Boston Globe editorial, Wu recounts her mother’s first hospitalization, when she was forcibly sedated, her clothes cut off her body and placed in a bag. “That bag also contained the last bits of her dignity shredded up inside,” wrote Wu. “It wasn’t the last time I shook with anger at a system that dehumanized her.”
In an attempt to stabilize her mother’s condition, Wu decided to open a small tea shop, which had long been a dream of her mother’s. She thought, “naively” in retrospect, that her mother could take over the shop and “get better all of a sudden,” and that Wu could return to her life in Boston.
By then, Wu still had no plans of going into politics, and had even “actively stayed away from it.” But in the process of opening a small business, she came into direct confrontation with politics and bureaucracy. Wu spent six months poring over the Chicago municipal code and trying to obtain a restaurant permit. “I was running up against barriers and walls from government constantly, everywhere we turned,” she says. Ultimately, she had to ask a local alderman for help.
In 2008, Wu opened Loose Leaf Tea Loft, a cafe and community hub that hosted open mic nights and served teas named after inspirational figures — Barack’s AudaciTea, which promised to “change the way you think of oolong with the flavor of hopeful hazelnut,” was a notable favorite. But despite its success, her mother wasn’t getting better.
Wu sold the shop shortly thereafter, but the bureaucratic barriers she faced getting it off the ground left a lasting impression. “I realized that not only is it impossible to escape politics and government, because it so influences every aspect of people’s daily lives, especially when you’re struggling,” she says, “but that this was a much larger struggle than just what I was going through.”
“Frustrated” at these systemic barriers, Wu decided to apply to law school, hoping to “understand how to better match the laws and the situations that local business owners and families were facing.”
In 2009, Wu returned to Boston to attend Harvard Law School, and this time she brought her family with her.
“Envision a City…”
When I speak to Wu over Zoom in February, she looks tired. It’s a Monday morning on Presidents’ Day, the only time available in her busy campaign schedule. She tells her story with a measured cadence, and without much prompting from me — she’s done this before. It’s hard to reconcile her radical GND plan with her calm, practiced demeanor.
But her GND plan is, indeed, radical — one of the most radical city-level policies of its kind. Developed over the course of a year-and-a-half, the plan lays out 15 targeted policies that combine ambitious climate action with environmental justice reforms.
Like the federal GND that inspired it, Wu’s city-level rendering is grounded in the environmental justice movement. The movement has been around since the 1980s and emphasizes the unequal burden of environmental harms on historically marginalized communities, a burden that will only grow as the climate changes.
“Envision a city…” begins Wu’s GND plan in grass-green text. “A transformed city, where poverty, pollution, social and environmental injustices, and racial oppression are becoming stories from the past.”
Her plan proposes net-zero emissions by 2040, an urban climate corps, resilient stormwater infrastructure, and to divest city funds from fossil fuels, among other policies. Concrete steps and examples of similar actions in other cities accompany each policy. “We have to focus on city power and also think about how intersectional the issue of climate justice is,” Wu said while presenting her plan at a Zoom city council meeting in August.
Wu believes strongly in the power of city government now, but it wasn’t until law school that she got her start in politics.
During law school, Wu wanted to fix in Boston some of the obstacles she had faced in Chicago. She dove into city politics for the first time, interning with Mayor Menino and working to streamline the restaurant permitting program. The tangible success Wu achieved convinced her of the power of city-level policy. “I knew city government was the place I wanted to make a difference, that I felt was so connected to families’ experiences,” she says.
Elizabeth Warren, Wu’s contracts law professor, was running for Senate at the time. Wu, inspired by her teaching, began working full-time with Warren’s constituency outreach team. “That was my first real experience with politics, and I saw just how much it matters,” she says. Warren has endorsed Wu for mayor.
Wu launched her campaign for city council in 2013, a year after graduating from HLS. She felt a “sense of urgency” to represent her family’s experiences and struggles, she says, but also admits she “in some ways naively threw my hat in the ring.” Even her most “well-intentioned” mentors cautioned her against running, saying that as a young, Asian American woman, and “most importantly,” as someone not born in Boston, the odds were stacked against her. But, she reasoned, “I couldn’t change any of those things about myself,” and ran anyway. In the 19-way race, she came in second, and was elected to the council in 2014.
But once in office, a critical vote raised doubts. Wu backed Bill Linehan, a five-term councilor from South Boston, for city council president. Linehan was thought to represent “Old Boston,” and had raised controversy over his plan to redistrict parts of Chinatown, removing two precincts that had voted against him in a previous City Council election.
For many supporters, her vote seemed like a betrayal of her progressive campaign promises, and her idealistic defense a little too naive. “There has been a lot of talk about a ‘New Boston’ and an ‘Old Boston,’” Wu said in a statement at the time, “but I reject the notion that Boston is a city hopelessly divided by neighborhood, income level or political outlook.”
Seven years later, such idealism echoes in her GND plan. “Together, we can reimagine the kind of city we’ve always wanted to live in and make it happen,” said Wu, presenting her plan at a panel discussion in August. But the idealism of her plan, she insists, is grounded in actionable policies. “This is all not just possible, but practical. It is what we are aiming for every day,” she said.
Now, Wu’s idealism seems less pollyannaish, especially in terms of climate action. While on the city council, she’s had a strong record on climate change and environmental justice, passing ordinances on community choice energy, food justice, and wetland conservation. Wu recently secured an endorsement from the Boston hub of the Sunrise Movement, a national youth climate organization.
Beyond climate, Wu has proposed other progressive policies. She has long advocated for fare-free transit across the city — her plan to “free the T” — and publicly protested MBTA fare hikes in 2019 for their unequal burden on Black and Latinx riders. Her proposal, which she claims could be paid for by increasing taxes on gasoline, was once considered outlandish, but has gained traction. Andrea Campbell, another mayoral candidate, has also proposed a fare-free bus system as part of her platform.
Wu now lives in Roslindale with her husband, two young sons, and her mother, whose condition has stabilized. After over a decade in Boston, Wu knows her way around. But some worry her Chicago roots may still hurt her chances at election.
Wu doesn’t see her relative newcomer status as a disadvantage. “I chose the city, and in some ways, I love it like someone who has learned it from scratch,” she said at a March press conference for student journalists.
And in some ways, coming from elsewhere has enabled her to envision Boston’s future through fresh eyes. “I come with a drive to make sure that we are building a city that everybody feels reflected in and welcome in, as someone who has found that here,” she says.
Closing the Gaps
When David Noiles was growing up in Roxbury in the 80s, nearly everyone in his neighborhood knew someone with asthma. He leans back in his chair and shakes his head: “Seriously, back then, the air quality was so bad.”
Noiles joined the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Program during high school, upon the suggestion of a neighbor. REEP, part of the larger organization Alternatives for Community and Environment, was founded in the early 90s to educate and empower local youth around environmental justice. Two decades later, Noiles now directs the program.
In 1997, around the time Noiles was in high school, buses would idle in the more than 15 depots nearby, spewing diesel fumes into the air. Asthma hospitalization rates in Roxbury were more than 5.5 times the state average. In 1990, Roxbury’s population was more than 70 percent Black, according to the Census.
When Noiles first joined REEP in high school, he learned that one of his classmates, who was also a former REEP member, had died of an asthma attack. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap. He’s one of the people that helped me graduate out of middle school,’” Noiles remembers thinking. “This story has to be told forever.”
REEP gained notoriety in the late 90s, when more than 75 students started an anti-idling campaign to reduce asthma rates and air pollution in Roxbury. The students led a march and eventually forced the MBTA to replace and retrofit dirty diesel buses in the fleet, and also won an extensive air monitoring system for the community. The protest attracted media attention as part of the growing environmental justice movement at the time.
But to Noiles, the most pressing environmental issue in Roxbury at the time was the lack of public trash cans. REEP gave him the vocabulary to see this problem as an environmental justice issue very much related to the racial makeup of his neighborhood. “They want to say that we’re nasty people, Black people in general, people from my neighborhood,” he remembers. “But then when I look outside, there’s no public trash cans.”
For Noiles, one of REEP’s most important impacts was on his own sense of confidence. “Being Black, nobody really cared about what was in your head,” he says. He often felt trapped, with few opportunities to deviate from a set path “in between work and death.” Participating in REEP, however, taught him “you can actually fight for your community, you can have a voice.”
Now director of REEP, Noiles wants to pay that forward and places his hope in young people. “I wish more young people believed in themselves the way that I believe in them,” he says. “I’m just like that dude at the party that pushes the friend in like, ‘I know you can dance. My friend can dance right here.’ Get in there and get busy.”
A few neighborhoods over in Dorchester, Lillian G. Gibson, a current high school student, has only seen one tree planted on her street in the past seven years. But a few streets over, in a predominantly white area of her neighborhood, tree canopy is much more extensive, she says. “I’ve seen what neglected climate action looks like,” Gibson adds.
According to a 2015 report, Dorchester’s population is now 45 percent Black. Some areas of the neighborhood contain less than 10 percent tree canopy, compared to an average of 27 percent city-wide.
“Even if our city has had so many advancements,” Gibson says, “I think the question should really be, ‘For who?’”
Across the city and state, environmental harms skew heavily toward communities of color. Nature deprivation affects 85 percent of Black residents and 90 percent of Latinx residents in Massachusetts, more than six times the rate for white residents. Boston’s Chinatown, located next to several large highways, has the worst air pollution in the state.
And climate change will only exacerbate existing environmental injustices. As temperatures rise, neighborhoods with lower tree canopy will feel this heat burden more intensely. The city’s egregious racial wealth gap — a median net worth of $247,500 for white families compared to $8 for Black families in 2015 — could render Black communities unable to recover from climate disasters. Sea level rise poses a particular threat to low-lying communities, like Dorchester’s Morrissey Boulevard.
Gibson, who previously campaigned for Ed Markey’s re-election to the Senate, first found out about Wu’s GND at an August launch event. Inspired by its depth and intersectionality, she thought, “why not” create a Twitter account to highlight Wu’s plans. Soon thereafter, Gibson helped found Students for Wu, a group of high school and college students who host policy breakdowns and Q&As.
A sense of environmental justice, past and present, is central to Wu’s GND. The plan contains policies to mitigate inequities and was produced through conversations with community leaders and organizations.
Visionary change often connotes federal-level policies, but Wu asserts that cities are equally capable of having a widespread impact.
In Massachusetts, the state exclusively holds certain legislative powers, but cities can still affect change within their realm of jurisdiction. The state controls building codes, but Boston has control over zoning and permitting laws, which can determine housing affordability requirements and concentration of green spaces. The state is also in charge of public transit, although Boston can control how street space is allocated, indirectly affecting how transit is prioritized.
Wu’s plan claims that the sum of these municipal powers, when leveraged, can powerfully impact local communities. “The city level GND is one of the most important levels,” says Nina A. Schlegel, the GND’s lead author and a former staffer in Wu’s office. “The city affects people’s lives and livelihoods and how they experience their neighborhood.”
Wu’s GND sees an opportunity to multitask: in the process of decarbonizing and greening energy systems, to simultaneously redress systemic inequities. “It is not just about avoiding and mitigating harms,” Wu says about her plan. “This is about reaching out and grabbing the opportunity that is there for everyone to benefit, and to close so many of the gaps we've been talking about.”
Wu lays out plans to help close these gaps, including a comprehensive justice audit of Boston’s municipal systems, examining hiring processes, leadership, and communications to “identify where public dollars are actually exacerbating disparities.” Wu’s plan would also reform zoning codes to create affordable housing, allocate priority planting zones to concentrate urban trees in low-income communities, and expand community land trusts.
Her GND also points out the heightened importance of local policy in the absence of action at the state or federal levels. The Massachusetts state house has a notoriously poor record on climate action, most recently with Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 vetoing a sweeping climate bill earlier this year. Wu’s GND was also conceived during the Trump administration, which stalled climate action at the federal level.
Wu’s plan has been lauded by many environmentalists for its depth and detail into city-level policy, though some have raised concerns about its price tag. The plan does not contain price estimates, but certainly wouldn’t be free, especially as the city recovers from a pandemic-induced recession.
For now, says Schlegel, the Boston GND isn’t meant to be “prescriptive,” but instead to show people a vision of what Boston could be, and prompt them to think, “‘Oh yeah, what else could we explore?’” Schlegel is now the executive director of the Global Center for Climate Justice, which will be producing a more detailed report to accompany the plan in the coming months.
More than anything, Wu’s GND celebrates the city of Boston. She draws on the city’s history of firsts — home to the country’s first public library, first public park, and first public school — to emphasize Boston’s potential to lead.
“It’s because we realized the ways in which we’re interconnected and we can do that again,” she says of the city’s many firsts. “When Boston leads, we have an impact on this country’s trajectory.”
‘Boston is Uniquely Home to Harvard’
Wu is now a Boston fixture, but she hasn’t forgotten that it was Harvard that first introduced her to the city. Now, student has become teacher — in terms of climate action, Harvard could stand to learn a thing or two from Wu’s GND.
Harvard’s current Climate Action Plan aims to transition the University to be fossil fuel-neutral by 2026, and fossil fuel-free by 2050. It’s worth noting that these decarbonization goals are more ambitious than Wu’s goals for the city, though as a small, private institution, Harvard likely has more control over on-campus emissions.
But unlike Wu’s GND, Harvard’s plan is almost exclusively focused on reducing emissions. The University has also emphasized its contribution to solving the climate crisis as an educational institution, teaching its students and providing scientific research. But many think Harvard should be less of a removed benefactor and more a direct player in the community.
“We think that right now, Harvard’s not necessarily working together with the Boston and Cambridge community, which is something that we believe is essential,” says Sheccid Ontiveros-Santillan ‘23, a member of Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice.
Klara A. Kuemmerle ‘24, a member of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a student group calling on the University to divest from fossil fuels, says the University’s roughly $840 million of lingering investments in fossil fuel companies have direct impacts on local communities. Fossil Fuel Divest recently filed an official complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General, alleging that Harvard’s fossil fuel investments are in violation of its obligations as a charitable organization under state law. Wu is among the signatories on the complaint.
Wu’s GND includes plans to divest Boston’s public funds from fossil fuels, a move she believes is both important and financially prudent. “It makes a difference when those with influence step up and set the example, and so I completely support the activists and students on campus who have been pushing for divestment,” she says.
Harvard’s climate policies are part of a larger conversation around Harvard’s role in the community. Harvard now owns more land in Boston than in Cambridge. “Boston is uniquely home to Harvard,” says Wu. “There are questions and conversations about the university as a community member and property owner and cultural partner to the city.”
Like other educational institutions, Harvard is classified as a non-profit and does not pay property tax to the city. Instead, many universities, Harvard included, make PILOT payments, or payments in lieu of taxes, for the public services they receive.
Harvard has also never been exempt from conversations about environmental justice. Notably, the University proposed to build a power plant near the neighborhoods of Brookline and Mission Hill in the ’80s to power its medical facilities. The Medical Area Total Energy Plant faced a thorny 12-year legal battle from community organizations that claimed its diesel emissions would harm local residents. MATEP was ultimately approved and functional, though it was eventually sold in 1998. Harvard’s expansion into Allston has raised similar concerns about gentrification.
According to Schlegel, the relationship between the city and its universities is unbalanced. “There needs to be a reevaluation at the city level to be like, ‘We’re providing so many services to these higher education universities,’” she says, mentioning Boston’s employment opportunities, infrastructure, and public transportation. “What should we be asking from them in return?”
University Professor Rebecca M. Henderson, the co-chair of Harvard’s Presidential Committee on Sustainability, says the University is working to be more engaged with climate efforts at the local level. “This is the conversation,” she says. “How do we as an institution really try and play a full role in the community, to help prepare the whole community for what’s happening?”
Henderson says the committee works closely with other institutions like MIT, as well as local officials to develop solutions on both a global and a hyper-local level. One example the committee has considered, she says, is launching a program to insulate local houses, reducing energy bills in low-income communities.
Henderson says she’s not familiar with Wu’s GND, but that progressive action at the city level would be “helpful” for the University. “The greener the infrastructure, the faster we’re going to reach our targets,” she says.
Kuemmerle hopes Wu’s progressive stance on climate change may put pressure on the University to be more progressive as well. Harvard may “feel, perhaps, pressured by the fact that their alumni are kind of speaking out against them,” she says. “These people who are rising up and making a name for themselves are against the very institutions that brought them a lot of their resources.”
Wu’s mayoral bid also makes explicit the impact Harvard students can have on Boston. Harvard students regularly joke about the “Harvard bubble,” that separates students from exploring other parts of Cambridge, let alone Boston.
“I think the truth is, sadly, that we’re not as involved as we should be” in Boston politics, says Ontiveros-Santillan. She says HUEJ has made political endorsements in the past, but she isn’t too familiar with Wu or her GND. “There is definitely a Harvard bubble.”
Wu is a rare student that has been immersed in both sides of this bubble. For a long time, she says, she didn’t know how to talk about her Harvard pedigree. But ultimately, her relatively privileged entry point into Boston has informed her now inclusive view of the city as a place for everyone.
“I think that sense of what doors have been opened, and how much I have benefited from opportunities that my parents never had access to and that so many across our community don’t have access to, feeds an obligation to make sure that we are tearing down every barrier,” Wu says.
From Chicago to Boston, and from Harvard to City Hall, Wu’s own story marks the fluidity she envisions for Boston’s future. Her GND imagines Boston as a community where the spheres of elite institutions and community organizations can overlap and enrich each other, where Wu’s story is possible for everyone.
— Staff writer Maliya V. Ellis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @EllisMaliya.