The 2020 Census places Boston among the growing multicultural cities of the future, but within the numbers is a clear call to action. Boston’s future depends on taking the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic to tackle big challenges.
The data show that even as our overall population grew, fewer Black residents live in Boston today than 10 years ago, as rising housing costs and chronic underinvestment, part of the ongoing legacy of systemic racism, have pushed out far too many families. The number of students in our schools continues to fall. Intensifying climate change is compounding the racial and economic inequities in our coastal city, with a closing window of time to act.
We’re seeing the interconnected impacts across our neighborhoods. Earlier this month, I worked a lunch shift on a purple Bon Me food truck. As a former restaurant owner familiar with the lunch crowd, I felt a rush of excitement and nerves donning apron and food-service gloves, hoping I wouldn’t slow the team down. But by noon, there was no need to worry about holding up the lunch rush. It was raining, and with the combination of changing weather and still-empty office buildings, even this popular business saw customers come at an even slower drip.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed our city in more ways than just foot traffic. And as the Delta variant surges — and the potential for other variants to evolve remains — one thing is clear: Boston needs leadership that matches the scope of change our city is experiencing.
First, the next mayor must lean into city power to build community prosperity through equity in city contracting and filling vacant commercial spaces to match community needs. Adding on-site child care in every large office building — by enforcing existing zoning requirements and facilitating connections between larger employers and child-care entrepreneurs — would change the calculus for working parents and close gaps for affordable care. Repurposing commercial spaces as residential units through creative partnerships would help relieve our housing crunch. Empowering entrepreneurs of color through grants, city contracting, and direct outreach to open new businesses in these spaces would begin to close our racial wealth gap.
Imagine providing opportunities for young people from our neighborhoods in all our major sectors — hospitals and life sciences, higher education, arts and culture, and the innovation economy — through direct pipelines from the Boston Public Schools. Now is the moment to invest in our school communities, make all of Boston our students’ classroom, and convene all sectors to plan for the core industries of the future, from life sciences to green jobs and reimagining the care economy.
Boston must also plan ahead for sustainable, equitable growth across our neighborhoods. Boston is one of the most expensive cities in the nation. City government must take responsibility to drive down the cost of living by boosting the supply of housing to ensure affordability and by making public transportation more accessible and reliable. We must lead in tackling climate change and creating a thriving green economy through a Boston Green New Deal.
Our arts, culture, restaurants, and local small businesses already bring jobs, safety, and joy to our city. But investing in and elevating this sector is crucial to healing, rebuilding, and growing community. We can simplify notoriously complex permitting processes, even to host a special event, by moving away from a culture of “No” to support placemaking in every neighborhood. We must build a thriving and inclusive arts, restaurant, and nightlife scene to reflect Boston’s culture and diversity.
All of this will take clear vision and effective leadership from City Hall, building coalitions across all our sectors. The success of Boston’s economy is intertwined with the health and well-being of every neighborhood. Our school communities depend on bold climate action to transform school facilities into energy-efficient, healthy spaces and to connect education to jobs of the future. Our pandemic recovery is intimately tied to delivering housing stability. Our economic competitiveness turns on a thriving, inclusive culture grounded in racial and economic justice.
We can’t address any of these issues individually — they must be tackled together. To recover and meet the moment, Boston deserves bold leadership to deliver solutions to reimagine our city as a bastion of equity and resilience. Our future is bright if we take the right steps to shape it.
Michelle Wu is a Boston city councilor and candidate for mayor of Boston.