Amid an election contest brimming with contentious issues over police transparency and social inequality, the environment took center stage on Monday, as the six major candidates for mayor of Boston faced off in a virtual debate sponsored by the Environmental League of Massachusetts and The Boston Globe.
Several of the candidates pointed to the existential need to get it right.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who has proposed a city-level Green New Deal and a sweeping climate agenda, said she would make Boston carbon-neutral by 2040 — 10 years earlier than the goals now set by the state and city — because the city can’t afford to wait.
“We know that if the entire world gets our emissions under the right threshold by 2050, we’ll have just a 50-50 chance for the planet to remain livable,” she said. “I don’t want my kids — I don’t want any of our kids and grandkids — to have just a coin flip’s chance of survival in this city and on our planet.”
Some noted the issue is entangled with economic and racial justice, and transportation policy, which affects public health outcomes like asthma.
“People are dying,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, pointing to a gaping disparity in Bostonians’ life expectancy by neighborhood — from under 59 in Roxbury to 90-plus in the Back Bay.
“This is about life and death,” Campbell said, “but I do think the language we use has to be expansive to include more communities, especially communities of color.”
But the candidates expressed different approaches on more particular matters on development and open space.
Five of the candidates said they support rebuilding the Long Island Bridge, which had to close for safety concerns in 2014, cutting off access to the city island where substance abuse services had been provided. People seeking services or shelter have ended up on the streets at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where addiction treatment programs, shelters, and social service agencies are clustered.
Former mayor Martin J. Walsh proposed rebuilding the bridge but faced opposition from the city of Quincy, where it touches down. The five candidates who support rebuilding called it an urgent issue. Wu, however, called for a different solution, balking at the estimated $100 million cost of rebuilding the bridge.
“Better things to do with that funding,” she said.
The candidates were also asked about another recent conflict over whether to replace shelter and substance abuse services at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital or to restore that part of Franklin Park to green space, as intended.
Annissa Essaibi George, an at-large city councilor who has focused on homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse recovery, said those issues do not need to be in conflict with preserving parkland.
“The Shattuck can do all of those things,” she said, “maintaining a certain level of green space but also responding to the very specific needs of our residents who are in crisis. Hundreds of people live on the street every single night that need supportive wraparound housing and certain stability in their lives. The Shattuck brings that to the people of Boston.”
Asked where they would seek to create new parks, several targeted the site of the Harbor Garage, which stands between the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the Harborwalk and where developer Don Chiofaro has long proposed a skyscraper.
John Barros, who served as chief of economic development under former mayor Martin J. Walsh, said the city should rebuild the existing garage, put it underground, and let Chiofaro develop elsewhere.
“I think we need to create new open space, a new park right there where the Harbor Garage sits,” said Barros. “It’s a super opportunity for the city to make a statement.”
Acting Mayor Kim Janey echoed that proposal and said the city should also create parkland on the East Boston site where Eversource proposes an electrical substation.
Janey touted initiatives including the launch of new recycling bins made completely from recycled ocean waste and the appointment of a city chief of environment, energy, and open space.
She was among the candidates for mayor — all of whom are people of color — who spoke about their personal experiences in neighborhoods where they felt environmental injustice firsthand. She pointed to the “devastation of our community when houses were torn down to make way for a highway,” and the loss of transit access when the elevated train was dismantled.
“For far too long, Black and brown communities have had to bear the brunt of the burden with no benefit,” said Janey. “These issues are deeply important to me and I’m already leading in the city of Boston.”
Barros recalled his doctor warning his mother he had high levels of lead in his system when he was growing up in Roxbury.
“Our neighborhood was treated like the city’s dumping ground,” said Barros. “In the 1990s and 2000, my neighborhood had the highest rate of asthma, the highest rate of trash transfer stations in the city. It wasn’t a coincidence.”
Representative Jon Santiago, the only candidate for mayor who has not yet released a climate plan, said his agenda is forthcoming. In the meantime, he suggested, he’s living his principles.
“I don’t own a car. I take public transportation. I walk, I take a bike,” Santiago said. “I’ve talked the talk and I’m going to walk the walk as the mayor of Boston.”