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OPINION

Boston needs to adopt a planning equity standard

The city needs to set a standard that makes clear to developers that their bottom line is not more important than building a stronger and more equitable Boston.

The Evelyn Moakley Bridge on Seaport Blvd., in Boston.
The Evelyn Moakley Bridge on Seaport Blvd., in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The city of Boston faces unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The communities hit hardest by COVID-19 now face economic fallout that will exacerbate existing poverty, unemployment, and housing insecurity. The pandemic has forced us to sit down and contemplate how we move forward as one community. Yet the real consideration is how we will choose to stand up. As the tidal wave of anguish, pain, fear, depression, and rage at the horrific killing of George Floyd crashes in our beloved city of Boston, we must ask: How do we move forward without reflecting on our own policies?

Our rebound requires us to restructure and reenvision the city of Boston. We cannot continue on as we had before. The key to our recovery is in how we plan. Planning is how we shape our future and demonstrate who we see as part of our community today. We decide which neighborhoods we value, the quality of food options, and how long commutes are, by how we plan. Planning has an impact on who we live next to and go to school with, who we see as belonging, and whether we see the police as a tool to remove perceived threats or as a potential threat to our lives. True, there is no perfect road map that can cure longstanding systemic inequality, but we will continue to exacerbate that inequality if we don’t change how we plan.

That is why we need to adopt an equity standard in our planning.

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In doing so, we acknowledge that decisions around housing, land use, and development are inextricable from fundamental discussions of civil rights. The City Council began discussing codifying an equity standard last year as an amendment to Boston’s zoning code. Such a zoning amendment would require the Boston Planning and Development Agency to actively further fair housing in all future developments and planning initiatives. We need the agency to hold developers accountable for being inclusive of all Bostonians in their proposals and set a standard that makes clear to developers that their bottom line is not more important than building a stronger and more equitable Boston. With this amendment, development plans would be assessed through a lens that asks questions such as: Is housing physically and economically accessible for all Bostonians? If we build a neighborhood of studios and one-bedroom units, where do families with children live? Who is this development for?

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Asking those questions should be the standard, but it’s not what we are doing or have done. In the past, we razed neighborhoods like the West End over the protests of immigrant and poor and working-class residents. We built highways that split communities like Chinatown and East Boston and prioritized suburban commutes over clean air for city residents. Most recently, in the Seaport, the city greenlit the construction of one of the most expensive downtown neighborhoods in the nation — one that is not reflective of Boston. Demographic data show that our newest neighborhood is nearly 90 percent white. The median income in the Seaport is $150,678 compared with $27,721 in Roxbury. Minority-owned businesses are hard to find. There are no schools, district police or fire stations, senior or health care centers. What a squandered opportunity to plan toward equity.

The city has expressed a commitment to racial equity and to assess Fair Housing standards. It set up a task force of attorneys, grass-roots activists, housing experts, and planners, which for three years has worked with them to examine efforts to actively further fair housing. On June 6, the advocates will present their long-awaited report. The task force has recommended, among many things, zoning that reflects a commitment to equity.

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Boston could lead the country in planning for the most equitable recovery possible. We’ve proved to be a resilient city. We know we’ll overcome the challenges presented by this pandemic. It’s time for Boston to plan for equity. We have an opportunity to set a standard for other cities to follow. Nearly a year and a half later, the need for such an amendment is even more clear. Maybe, finally, the City of Boston will agree to put its convictions into a true commitment at our next hearing, on June 19 — Juneteenth, the day America commemorates the end of slavery in our country. It would be bold and require some work, but it is the right thing to do.

The following are members of the Boston City Council: Lydia Edwards is the District One city councilor, Ricardo Arroyo is the District Five city councilor, Julia Mejia is a city councilor at-large, Andrea Campbell is the District Four city councilor, Liz Breadon is the District Nine city councilor, Kim Janey is the council president and District Seven city councilor, Michelle Wu is a city councilor at-large, and Kenzie Bok is the District Eight city councilor.

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