It’s not a fantasy, it happens in an ever growing number of cities, both small and big. By 2015, citizens of over 1,500 cities worldwide were helping to decide on what their city budget should be spent. This is called ‘participatory budgeting’.
We start with seven inspirational examples from around the globe. After that, we draw general conclusions on the potential impact of participatory budgeting.
1. Seoul, South Korea
Seoul spends an annual budget of 50 billion Korean won (= 39 million €) on participatory budgeting projects. The South Korean capital convinced 117,000 citizens to participate in 2017. An impactful project focused on a deteriorated neighbourhood in the Mapo district. They didn’t only launch an environmental design project to prevent crime, they also established the community center of Sogeumnaru. Remarkable about this project was that it was partly carried out by residents, and a part of it was financed by corporate and resident funding.
As a result of this specific project, the concern for safety decreased and thousands of domestic and overseas civil officers and local politicians visit the area to learn from this example.
2. Paris, France
Paris is spending 5% of its investment budget through participatory budgeting from 2014 until 2020, representing a total of half a billion euros. The French capital is implementing participatory budgeting on different levels simultaneously: one project for the whole of Paris, one for every single district and specific participatory budgeting projects for low-income neighbourhoods. On top of this, also youth organisations and schools have their dedicated participatory budgeting projects.
Most of the collected ideas in Paris’ participatory budgeting projects are oriented towards building ‘another possible city’. Recurring topics are urban agriculture, greening the city, and care for refugees and homeless people. As an illustration of the latter, 3,000 survival and health kits were distributed to homeless people and architects and planners were invited to design innovative spaces for temporary or mobile shelters.
Participatory budgeting in Paris is also impacting the city administration. City directorates learn to react much more quickly, and to cooperate on participatory budgeting proposals that often spread over several directorates.
3. Porto Alegre, Brazil
The first known participatory budgeting project took place in Porto Alegre in the eighties. Participatory budgeting contributed to a more equitable distribution of city services in this Brazilian city. By 1997, sewer and water connections went up from 75% to 98%; health and education budgets increased from 13% to about 40; the number of schools quadrupled; and road-building in poor neighbourhoods increased five-fold.
4. Toronto, Canada
The case of Toronto is a special one in the list. Toronto has its own corporation for community housing, managing 6% of Toronto’s housing stock. CAD $7 million of this corporation’s budget was allocated through participatory budgeting every year. Tenants could participate and didn’t need the city’s approval for their choices because it was part of the corporation’s own budgets. As a majority of tenants come from socially disadvantaged groups, the participatory budgeting project tended to allocate more budget to these specific groups and it also had a pedagogic value in accustoming the tenants to be involved in public decision-making.
5. Chengdu, China
Chengdu, a Chinese city of 14 million inhabitants with a mix of rural and urban areas, started their participatory budgeting project in 2011. Two million booklets were used to inform their citizens on the process and objectives. Ever since, 50,000 small projects have been approved, a big majority of them on basic, local services and in infrastructure, such as village roads and water supply. What makes it truly unique is the choice citizens have: to either spend participatory budgeting resources on immediate actions, or to use them as a down payment on a collective loan for much larger projects. In the case of the latter, the loan is repaid by a part of the participatory budget in the following years.
6. Rosario, Argentina
The city of Rosario in Argentina mixed participatory budgeting with an approach called ‘gender budgeting’. In practice it means taking appropriate actions to involve more women in the participatory budgeting process, and to make all participants more sensitive of gender issues and the impact of the participatory budgeting projects on these issues.
7. New York City, USA
This beautiful short film on the participatory budgeting project of New York City serves as our seventh and final example.
Why should you want it?
Inspired? Good! But does participatory budgeting also really impact the community that uses it? Let the following arguments convince you:
On the short term, participatory budgeting can lead to better and more equitable decisions by giving community members a say in how (part of) the city budget is spent. Numbers show that participatory budgeting causes a relative increase in allocation of budget towards projects that focus on the needs of underserved communities. Depending on the amount allocated through participatory budgeting, it could prove a powerful instrument of redistribution to the poor.
On the mid term, participatory budgeting projects are found to increase public acknowledgement for the city’s role in composing and spending a budget. When implemented seriously, participatory budgeting increases the transparency of public money expenses. And by doing so, it has the potential to reduce corruption and clientelism.
On a longer term, participatory budgeting generates social capital by strengthening community organisations, by connecting them with their communities and by developing active and democratic citizens.
Inspired? Nothing stops you from starting experimenting in your own city. Let us know if we can help.