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IDEAS

The next Big Dig shouldn’t be a dig

A protest in Boston in 2018 organized by the Poor People's Campaign.CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
Heather Hopp-Bruce

Building a more healthy, inclusive, equitable, climate-resilient future requires a new way of thinking about infrastructure. Rather than soliciting individual projects and making specific isolated investments in transit, education, housing, and green space, Boston can lead in transformative change by adopting an integrated social justice approach to public investments.

None of the intersecting crises we are facing right now, whether they be increased frequency of climate disruptions, growing economic precariousness, or deepening racial disparities in housing, health, and education, can be addressed effectively until and unless we address these problems together. Incremental improvements here and there are never going to be sufficient.

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So instead of following the traditional approach of prioritizing investments in physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, trains, and schools — an approach that we know perpetuates inequities and disparities — a social justice approach would instead strengthen social networks. It would, for example, make public transit free to ensure mobility and access to opportunities. It would expand local cooperative banks that offer non-extractive finance — zero-interest or low-interest loans that create a mechanism for investments in home improvements and renewable energy deployment in communities that have been beset by underinvestment for too long. A social justice approach would also invest in workforce training, expand workers’ rights, and incentivize employers to provide stable, fulfilling, living-wage jobs.

To realize this vision, we need more bold leaders who are committed to linking problems and opportunities together and investing not just in physical infrastructure but in social innovation and social infrastructure.

Jennie C. Stephens, professor and director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, is the author of “Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy.”