Citizens Redirect Funding to Bike Lanes, Community Gardens, and Street Lamps in an Experiment in Direct Democracy

1.30.13 | In just four years, an experiment in direct democracy — and direct governance — has spread from the Rogers Park neighborhood on Chicago’s far north side to three other Windy City wards, a handful of New York City districts, and the city of Vallejo, CA.

Participatory budgeting (PB), which began in 1989 in Porto Allegre, Brazil, as a way to overcome inequality and improve living standards in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, reached the United States after spreading to hundreds of cities in South and Central America, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

In Chicago’s 49th Ward, PB opened up to residents age 16 and older the process of allocating local infrastructure funding. And that brought about a radical reordering of spending priorities. (Full disclosure: I’m a volunteer on the 49th Ward’s “PB49” Leadership Committee.) Infrastructure spending in Chicago is also known as “menu money” for the “menu” of infrastructure-related projects each of Chicago’s 50 aldermen can tap for their wards from a dedicated stream of general obligation bonds.

In 2009, the year before Alderman Joseph Moore began using PB, he spent 88 percent of his $1.5 million in menu money on street resurfacing, new streetlights, and sidewalk repairs. In 2008, he targeted street lighting, allocating it almost all of his $1.4 million.

Since PB’s introduction in 2010, ward residents have opened menu money to include bicycle lanes and racks, murals beautifying railroad viaducts, a dog park, a community garden, playground upgrades, additional benches and heat lamps at the ward’s three “L” stations, convenience showers at beaches, additional tree plantings, and placement of solar-powered trash and recycling bins along Sheridan Road (a major north-south artery along the lakefront).

In the 2012-13 cycle, the PB Chicago effort has spread to three other wards, each sifting through their own community’s needs. For example, where Rogers Park residents have readily approved expanding the neighborhood’s bicycle lane network, residents of the 5th Ward, encompassing the South Side’s Hyde Park neighborhood and the University of Chicago, are using PB to figure out what to do with open lots where homes and retail uses once stood.

The PB Chicago process begins in the fall with community meetings where residents learn about the menu money process, offer ideas for how those funds should be spent, and are recruited to be community representatives tasked with sifting through the ideas to determine which are eligible for menu money, which are feasible, or which have already been done. They also have to determine a price for each project. Surviving proposals are previewed in a second series of community meetings and then put to a vote in the spring. The top vote-getting projects are funded by the available menu money.

The 2013 PB voting day in the four wards will be May 4, right in the middle of the Building a Democratic City conference, to be held May 3-5 at Loyola University Chicago. Last year’s inaugural conference in New York (like this year’s, sponsored by the Brooklyn-based Participatory Budgeting Project) examined the history of PB, offered tours of voting sites, and covered topics ranging from organizing PB by ward or district, how to encourage participation by youth and minority residents, and how to engage arts and media.

Organizers are taking suggestions for panels, workshops, presentations and sessions through February 15.

Also check out: PB NYC and PB Vallejo.

Photo/ Steven Vance

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