A community resource center to help residents find jobs and to give kids a place to hang out. Lighting in public parks to discourage gang activity. Security cameras. Computers and a smartboard for PS 269’s after-school program. These projects, chosen by residents but not yet implemented, have already come a long way since they were first proposed last fall, thanks to months of hands-on research and labor-intensive collaboration by residents of New York City’s 45th district, in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Residents transformed 278 rough ideas for community improvement into thirteen formal project proposals, and at the end of March, they voted for up to five projects they wanted to see funded. Three other New York City districts separately followed the same process.
Last spring, New York City Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8, Manhattan/Bronx), Brad Lander (District 39, Brooklyn), Jumaane Williams (District 45, Brooklyn) and Eric Ulrich (District 32, Queens), opted into an experiment after the Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit that works with officials and communities throughout North America, presented the idea to members of the City Council. The idea was to empower residents of their districts to decide how to spend approximately $6 million in capital discretionary funds—a little over $1 million per district—on long-lasting physical improvements to local public infrastructure. Final proposals ranged from the straightforward (lights in three parks and two playgrounds in Flatbush) to the more complex (an off-grid solar-powered greenhouse in the Bronx). At the end of March, residents voted on their districts’ proposed projects. Within each district, the projects with the most votes whose combined costs total approximately $1 million will be brought by their respective council member to the City Council for approval this summer.
While City Council members in New York have called this an “experiment,” participatory budgeting is a well-established process that has been adopted over the past two decades by about 3,000 cities around the world. It originated in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and has been hailed for its inclusiveness and its ability to foster a deeper relationship between government and governed. Yet participatory budgeting has been used almost nowhere in the United States, where, other than New York City, only the 49th ward of Chicago has implemented the idea. In the United States, “we’re not used to looking outside the country for ideas about democracy,” explains Josh Lerner, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which, in addition to providing the impetus for New York City’s pilot program, offered technical assistance throughout.
In New York City, even a proposal that wins the majority of residents’ votes is not a guarantee that residents’ ideas will come to fruition. The City Council speaker decides on final district allocations and council members are not legally required to implement final projects, says Celina Su, a Brooklyn College associate professor involved in overseeing the New York City project. She does not expect New York council members to renege on their word after the City Council speaker decides on district allocations this summer, but technically, they are not bound to fulfill these promises. Porto Alegre, in fact, has encountered problems along these very lines.
This issue and several others highlight the double-edged nature of participatory budgeting. Indeed, within the academic microcosm of participatory budgeting, experts are as wary of its risks and limitations as they are optimistic about its potential, frequently disagreeing on the extent to which participatory models can and should be used.