Boston Park Advocates, which is “a citywide network of people who champion urban greenspace,” according to its website, hosted a mayoral candidate forum on June 29, where candidates responded to a multitude of questions relating to parks and open space in the city.
Candidates John Barros, Andrea Campbell, Anissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu were in attendance for the entire forum, while Jon Santiago joined late from another event. Acting Mayor Kim Janey was not in attendance.
The forum was moderated by WBZ journalist Anaridis Rodriguez.
The first question posed to candidates had to do with conflicts between neighbors in the way parks are used, and what changes they would impose to help with these issues.
John Barros said that he has heard from residents that there is “confusion” over park access for some parks. He said the permit process for booking space in parks should be made easier for residents. Additionally, he called for the creation of more green space and park space and “meet the demands of all of our residents.”
Andrea Campbell said that “sometimes there are conflicts,” such as people wanting or not wanting dogs or bikes in park space. She also brought up the discussions had recently regarding dirt bikes, especially in Franklin Park. She said that as mayor, she would engage all residents, including those who are active in civic organizations and neighborhood groups, as well as those who aren’t and may not be aware of certain issues. She said more dog parks are necessary, as well as space for young people to ride bikes and play music “between reasonable hours,” and “invest in better maintenance.”
Annissa Essaibi George said that it’s important to ensure “that we’ve got active space that is well maintained,” adding that “parks offer such an incredible opportunity to attract visitors to our city.”
She said that she would advocate for more “safe space for dogs to run and play,” as well as “active space for youth programming.” She also spoke about active spaces like the Franklin Park golf course versus other areas of green space like city parklets.
Wu said that “parks have always been the lungs of our city,” and said that for her family, “Boston parks and open spaces are our summer home.” She said that she recognizes this is the case for many other residents as well, and not just in the summer, but year-round. She said an “integrated city plan” is necessary “to match what residents need.”
She said that additional staffing and funding is also needed, as “we are very aware that many of our parks are underutilized.”
Another question was related to development and open space. “While more housing is critically needed in Boston, development also brings threats to our current and potential green spaces,” Rodriguez said. “What creative strategies will your administration implement to balance development and the need for protected and public open space to accommodate a rapidly expanding population?”
Essaibi George talked about “space that is actively designed for passive parklets,” and she said these should be integrated with development in the city. She also talked about increasing the city’s tree canopy and creating more spaces for “moments of respite and moments of sort of quiet here in the city.”
Wu said that “Boston is the place that invented the idea of free, open parks for all,” and called for “changes within this process” relating to balancing housing and open space requirements.
Wu said that she has also “stood with parks groups” and helped to “defend” the Public Garden and the Common from “encroachment.”
Barros said that “when we think about past developments, we think about what the federal government did with housing,” adding that “quality of life matters.” He said that investing in more open space and paying specific attention to the tree canopy, as well as the “planning process and zoning for the City of Boston,” are important.
Campbell said that the pandemic has shone a light on the need for access to green space. “Sometimes residents don’t necessarily know the value that it brings until you don’t have it,” she said. She said that all of this should also be looked at “through a public health lens,” including the planting of more trees and the creation of more open space and parks. She said using Community Preservation Act funding and the Vacant Lot Initiative, both of which she has advocated for as a city councilor, is a way to deal with this issue.
Equity was also a major factor when it came to all of the questions asked about parks and open space, but candidates were asked what “initial steps” they would take for making parks and green spaces more equitable for all.
“One of the ideas I’m most excited about is already moving forward,” Wu said, referring to the Urban Conservation Corps that has been proposed. She said that restoring buildings so they are more climate resilient as well as continuing the city’s work on an urban forestry plan. Wu said that the city “also need[s] to move forward with the creation of permanent open space for urban agriculture and community gardens as well.”
Barros said that “I’ll make sure that we move forward on building our parks,” and he also called for more protection of parkland from coastal flooding. He said that expanding green space is something he will work on “immediately” if elected mayor.
Campbell said that “greater planning efforts” are needed to create equity in green space, and she called for jobs for people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. She said she “has a track record of delivering” as a district councilor, so she believes she would continue to deliver as mayor of Boston.
Essaibi George said that “by investing in open spaces, we can mitigate the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color.” She said that it’s important to pay attention to neighborhoods “that are most affected by climate change,” as well as improving the tree canopy for better air quality. She also said that she would ensure that “the condition of the parks” in neighborhoods like Dorchester is the same as the ones in the Back Bay and downtown.
Community gardens and urban farms have become increasingly important during the pandemic as a food source for many people, and candidates were asked “what specific actions do you propose to support community gardens and urban farms in our city?”
Essaibi George said that she has been able to visit many community gardens across the city as a city councilor. She said the community factor is one of the most important aspects of the gardens.
“It’s about the flowers and it’s about the vegetables, but it’s also about that sense of neighbor to neighbor engagement.”
She said that providing community gardens with the proper access to resources is important.
“We see community gardens have been a mechanism for organizing, for empowerment, for democracy along with all of the good that directly comes from open space and the financial and economic independence that can come from producing your own food,” Wu said.
She said that the city should “set aside preference for community land trusts, create funding to directly fund the permanent affordability or commitment to designating open spaces as part of community gardens and these spaces.”
She said that “we can model this with our own culture that we create on public land,” and suggested having fruit trees that are available for anyone in a public space or a seed library at public libraries.
“I live right next to a community garden,” Santiago said, which has helped provide food during the pandemic and allow the community to connect. “I really want to focus my administration on supporting the work that community land trusts do, and by investing in a trust fund to establish them.”
John Barros agreed that the community land trusts are a “very important tool when we’re thinking about urban farms.” He said that providing technical assistance to residents and ensuring that they have healthy, clean soil to grow crops is important for providing healthy and fresh food to Boston residents. He also said that youth should be involved with community gardens and growing food as well.
“This is a tool to address issues of food insecurity,” Campbell said, adding that the City of Boston could use the “hundreds of vacant lots” to create garden spaces. She agreed that technical assistance, providing resources and investing in community land trusts are important, adding that “food co-ops and co-op models are also critically important” in the city.
Candidates were asked fi they would commit to allocating one percent of the city’s operating budget to the Parks Department budget, as currently only 0.75 percent of the budget is allocated, Rodriguez said.
All candidates said they would commit to increasing the Parks Department budget, which Rodriguez said covers “maintenance, programs, and project management.”
Candidates were asked several other questions as well on topics relating to programming and access to parks and ensuring that parks and other open space will help Boston be climate ready moving forward, as well as maintenance for woodland areas in the city.
The full video of the forum with all questions asked can be found on the Boston Park Advocates Facebook page. Additionally, responses to a candidate questionnaire can be found at bostonparkadvocates.org.