Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu likes to distinguish herself in the race for mayor with bold ideas: making the MBTA free, lifting the ban on rent control. But perhaps her most audacious statement came earlier this summer, when she declared her love for the architecture of Boston City Hall. “I will fight anyone who says it’s not a beautiful building,” she said in an interview with boston.com. Since the brutalist icon regularly tops the list of most despised structures in Boston — at least among non-architects — her lone stand is practically heroic.
The mayoral candidates’ thoughts on urban design may not top every voter’s priority list, but they provide a useful lens through which to view Tuesday’s historic preliminary election, in which all candidates identify as people of color. Nearly every challenge facing Boston is a design issue, and it’s not just about architectural style. Climate readiness and housing are design issues, since 70 percent of the city’s carbon emissions come from buildings, and nearly half of all Boston residents spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. But social justice, health, transportation equity, public safety, and education also require smart design thinking about the city’s buildings, its public spaces, and the connections in between.
At a recent forum sponsored by the Boston Society for Architecture, the candidates played to type. Wu was characteristically wonky and ambitious, with a long list of solutions to climate change and a forthright call to abolish the city’s sclerotic planning department, the Boston Planning & Design Agency. City Councilor Andrea Campbell wanted zoning codes adjusted for each neighborhood, addressing the needs of those — like her constituents in Mattapan and Dorchester — who often feel left out by the machinations at City Hall. Former chief of economic development John Barros relied on his expertise as cochair of former mayor Marty Walsh’s Imagine Boston 2030 planning blueprint, and pointed to the troubled intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Mass. Ave. — “Mass. and Cass” — as an example of urban design failure. “That’s all about how we use place,” he said, “and right now it says something really bad about us as a city.”
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George was engaging but cautious, declining even to name a building or public space in the city that she dislikes (the others gamely called out the Seaport District or City Hall Plaza). Acting Mayor Kim Janey did not attend, nor did she fill out a questionnaire on design issues the BSA sent out in July. That too, unfortunately, is in keeping with her strategy of largely ignoring campaign forums, hoping to ride her five-month incumbency into November’s final election.
People familiar with city government know how granular its work can get, and the design forum brought that home. The candidates were fluent in speaking about stretch codes, inclusionary zoning, land trusts, and requirements in the city’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance, which is up for renewal. But understanding the levers of bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily translate into building the city we want to be: safe, green, welcoming, beautiful, and fair.
In 2013, the last time Boston had an open race for mayor, I moderated the first candidates’ forum, also for the BSA. To a person, all nine candidates attending bemoaned the high cost of Boston’s housing and complained bitterly about the city’s development process, calling it “a black box,” “opaque,” and “a system about who you know and not the merit of your project.”
What is striking eight years later is how much hasn’t changed.
The old Boston Redevelopment Authority has a new name and logo, but the development process is still too opaque, too insular, too dominated by a few firms that know their way around that black box. The civic isolation brought on by the pandemic has only made that worse. The Walsh administration developed housing at a blistering pace, permitting more than 36,000 new units, but prices are still too high, especially for communities of color, suggesting that supply alone is not the answer to the housing crunch.
Boston needs a mayor who is willing to challenge status quo thinking in order to design solutions for the social and environmental issues we face today. That means getting the best out of city workers and community volunteers, persuading neighboring communities and the Legislature to do their share, and making sure Boston’s streets, schools, parks, and public spaces work for all its people. Because a city is so much more than its skyline.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.