Placemaking Starts with Each of Us, Plus an Update on Participatory Budgeting

4.9.13 | When last we looked in on the Project for Public Spaces, they had posted the second part of a three-part discussion of the links between placemaking and economic growth within a community. Part III is a new discussion on “How to be a Citizen Placemaker: Think Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper.”

The gist is JFK-simple: Picture in your mind your favorite public place, and all the things that make it so, and then, “the million dollar question: in that vision, what are you doing to add to that bustle?” (Emphasis in the original.)

“The core function of place, as a shared asset, is to facilitate participation in public life by as many individuals as possible. Ultimately the true sense of a place comes from how it makes the people who use it feel about themselves, and about their ability to engage with each other in the ways that they feel most comfortable.”

The “lighter, quicker, cheaper” is notable for laying out the small steps that you can take today that lead eventually to that ideal public space: “If you think of enlivening a place as a monumental task, remember that great places are not the result of any one person’s actions, but the actions of many individuals layered on top of one another. It may take years to turn a grassy lot into a great square, but you can start today by simply mowing the lawn and inviting your neighbors out for a picnic.”

(And in noting that this principle was well known back in the day, the post is also remarkable for citing Hubert Humphrey. Outside political and Tom Lehrer fan circles, how often does that happen?)

“Lighter, quicker, cheaper” aims to get people more engaged in and with the public realm, citing, for example, people who bring their work from the office to a sidewalk café, or Helsinki, Finland’s Restaurant Day. Any step is a step in the right direction: “After decades of society turning its back on public life in favor of the private realm of home, office, and car, a lot of people now feel that they need permission to use public spaces the way they’d like to. We can give that permission to each other.”


Participatory Budgeting Update

Returning to another PPS idea — place governance — as Participatory Budgeting (PB) is an already in-place model for that, I’d like to update you as to where we are here in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, where PB was first launched in the United States. (Disclosure: I sit on the PB49 Leadership Committee, which helps organize and oversee participatory budgeting in Chicago’s 49th Ward, encompassing Rogers Park.)

While the Midwest hibernated through winter, dozens of Rogers Park residents were actively vetting hundreds of project ideas submitted last fall by their neighbors as to how Alderman Joseph Moore should spend his allocation of “menu money” (the $1.3 million that each of Chicago’s 50 aldermen get annually to take care of capital expenditures within their wards). From myriad suggestions, these community representatives had to sort the doable from the not-so-much, then determine as best they could a price tag for each project.

Their work came back to the forefront last week during two “Community Expo” meetings at which the surviving projects and their projected costs were presented to residents. Those projects will be on the PB ballot in just over three weeks — Voting Day is May 4, with early voting taking place in the preceding week. (After the vote, community representatives are invited to join the Leadership Committee, thus sustaining oversight with people who began at the most grassroots level.)

One problem with the PB process in the 49th Ward is that we are a self-selecting group; most people with the time and inclination to get involved and stay involved come from, shall we say, a certain socioeconomic segment within a very diverse community. Outreach, particularly to high school students (the voting age for the annual PB election is 16) and people in the Spanish-speaking community, has been problematic. One experiment this year is a Spanish Language Committee comprising people from the Hispanic community. Although projects from that committee will be on the ballot, it remains to be seen whether members of that panel will join the Leadership Committee.

Moreover, if this experiment is successful, why not create, say, a Haitian Creole Language committee, since there is now a Haitian community in Rogers Park? But, if we self-fragment like that, how do we draw diverse communities together?

Questions like that remain to be answered, of course, and I’ll provide periodic updates here as this experiment goes along. But that won’t stop ongoing discussion among our group, or the other three Chicago wards that have begun PB this year and will also be voting on May 4. That first weekend in May is also, not coincidentally, when the 2nd International Conference on Participatory Budgeting is happening at Loyola University. So if you’re going to be in Chicago, or want to see what PB is all about, check it out.

Photo: Restaurant Day, Helsinki, Finland/ Roy Bäckström

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