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If a Boston resident had to pick the two biggest issues facing the city right now, their selections may very well be this pair: housing and transportation.
And in a Venn diagram, the middle between the two would likely have, at least, this word: affordability.
All three, and the relationship each has with the other, were on Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s mind on Wednesday morning, as she sat down to talk over her priorities and the need for bold change with Boston Globe columnist Jeneé Osterheldt during the kick-off of the three-day virtual 2022 Globe Summit.
This year’s annual conference held by Boston Globe Media Partners, which owns Boston.com, focuses on “The Next Boston,” with conversations with leaders across a variety of fields and areas of expertise in the city and region at large. The free program began Wednesday morning and runs through Friday.
As for what’s in store for the “new” Boston, Wu is very much an optimist.
It’s “a city where families can thrive,” she said. “It’s the city that cures cancer and innovates and is the place you want to be to do good in the world.”
The line seemingly harkened to sentiments in President Joe Biden’s visit on Monday to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. There, Biden laid out the progress his administration has made since setting its sights earlier this year on a so-called “moonshot” to develop a cure for cancer — an effort that undoubtedly draws on Greater Boston’s bastion of scientific resources and knowledge economy.
Still, even as the beneficiary of a booming bio-tech hotbed, Boston is facing some large issues, especially when it comes to being affordable enough for families to call it home.
Here’s what Wu had to say about those issues and more:
In recent years, Boston has created new transit infrastructure, from bus-only traffic lanes to a wider network of bike lanes.
Osterheldt raised though there is a feeling that such changes, like the bike lanes, could be signifiers of gentrification.
In other words, who are these changes for?
Wu said transportation goes “hand in hand” with affordability.
“Transit has always been fundamental to economic mobility to community to connectedness,” she said.
Wu also highlighted her hope to see Boston hit its “high water mark” for population; to see the city regain residents past its current population of approximately 675,000 residents to levels of over 800,000 that the city on a hill once had in the 1950’s.
In doing that, the city must efficiently use public space and streets to provide better transit options.
“It’s important as we’ve expanded bus infrastructure and dedicated lanes to also pair that with free bus routes to show that this belongs to the people who live in these communities,” Wu said. “It’s not intended to create all new people who live there, which can be the unintended consequence of polices that are not specifically stabilizing neighborhoods and investing in people.”
Bike lanes are a similar situation, she said.
“Biking is actually the cheapest way to get around. It’s the fastest way in a lot of cases,” Wu said. “It’s fast, but we have to make it safe in order for all of our community members to take part in it.”
On housing, Wu said city officials are trying to “claw a little bit more” affordable housing wherever they can.
“That’s in the large-scale developments that are being planned. … It is in the land audit that we have done of all city-owned property, that includes schools, libraries, community centers that need renovation and we can integrate affordable housing that the city can manage and maintain as permanently affordable as part of that redevelopment,” Wu said.
The mayor also suggested the possibility of converting and rehabilitating old office spaces into housing units as more people work remotely or work from home.
“With remote work, how much do people need to be downtown at the office?” Wu asked. “We hope that we create a window for more residential spaces to be created as well.”
Additionally, Wu said Boston is “probably the city that’s using the most” of the federal COVID recovery funds on housing with its $385 million earmark over the next three years.
So what does the new Boston look like for Wu?
Here’s what she said:
Everywhere I go, the Boston we’re fighting for is the greenest city in America, a city for everyone, a city where families can thrive. It’s the city that cures cancer and innovates and is the place you want to be to do good in the world, to make things happen.
I think we have all the pieces for that. I mean, it’s in our DNA and history all around us. But to make that truly see and include everyone is the bridge to making sure that this is a city that will lead the way in the industries of the future to combat the challenges that we’re facing now.
And we’re a city where, I hope, you can see tangible examples of that happening right now. As much as we talk about the future, and how things will shift — whether it’s for sea-level rise, or climate, or housing — in 15, 20 years, I want to make sure we’re feeling that impact immediately.
And so, it’s the bus routes that you can get on for free. It’s the partnerships at the new Boston Arts Academy, a gleaming, completely energy-efficient building that’s right next door to now one of the premier, leading music halls in the country. It’s the partnerships from our sports team with local youth sports programs.
And it’s feeling like we can try things — might not always work, but we’re going to give it our all in innovating, testing out, and making big bets on the future of this city.
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