At dusk on a Tuesday evening early last month in Chicago, an elderly woman wearing a shining silver hat and a pair of spectacles low on her nose sat outside a stately brick high school. Beside her was a bike lock and, on her shoulder, a chirruping green and blue parakeet. Together, she and the tropical bird greeted the dozens of people who streamed by, heading through the doors of Sullivan High School and into a room where folding chairs and several large pizzas were set out.
Here in the beach-lined Rogers Park neighborhood, Chicagoans are activating an experiment in democratic governance: participatory budgeting. A simple yet radical departure from traditional city budgeting processes, the participatory system allows residents of a given area to directly vote on how government money is spent within their community. Rogers Park’s Ward 49 can call itself the first place in North America to put it into practice. “We were the first one. We beat New York. They emulated a lot of what we did,” said Alderman Joe Moore, who called the system a profound deviation from the status quo “in a city like this, where so many decisions are made from the top down.”
Five years after Moore’s district first tried participatory budgeting, three other wards have followed its lead, picking up a practice pioneered 25 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Since 2011, nine city council districts in New York adopted it. The city of Vallejo, Calif. did the same last year, as did one council district in San Francisco. The results are promising, with participation levels relatively strong and zero scandals to date.
“Participatory budgeting was a huge success… with thousands of people working together to choose much-needed projects in their neighborhoods,” Brooklyn’s Brad Lander, one of four New York council members to try the practice in its first year used in the city, told reporters last fall.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in late October that he’s interested in taking participatory budgeting citywide. And this isn’t just talk: Emanuel’s 2014 budget includes funds for a manager of such a program, who would provide technical support to bring the process into each of Chicago’s 50 wards. Other U.S. cities will be watching, potentially opening to the door for mainstreaming a practice that has struggled to gain legitimacy beyond the provinces of the left.
More than 80 people arrived for Chicago’s first two neighborhood assemblies of the year. Only about half had voted in previous participatory budgeting elections, but the mood in the rooms was one of cautious curiosity. Many took notes. A few appeared intimidated — it took several invitations at the first meeting before anyone felt comfortable enough to so much as help themselves to a slice of free pizza. Others were relaxed, enjoying the opportunity to socialize with their neighbors on a weeknight. One middle-aged woman with long brown hair greeted two friends and fellow residents before the meeting started. “We’re going to see how this works,” she told them. “We’re not going to stay for the whole thing. We need to have our dinner and scotch.”
At stake is $1.3 million in “menu money” that council members receive from the City of Chicago for capital projects in their wards. In the participatory budgeting process, a council member — Moore in this instance — agrees to turn over $1 million of that to pay for projects proposed and voted on as priorities by residents. (The rest is saved for emergencies and cost overruns.) The last year Moore spent menu money at his own discretion was 2009. Since then, residents have voted to use the funds to support a range of projects that have taken shape in the neighborhood, including the Dubkin Park community garden, heating shelters at three transit stations, bike lanes and a $110,000 dog park.
What might Ward 49 vote for this year? When the neighborhood assemblies broke up into small groups facilitated by volunteer representatives — some who appeared nervous in the role, albeit heartfelt — dozens of wide-ranging ideas were brainstormed and scrawled on paper taped to the walls. Among them were green alleys, a community composting site, speed bumps at key intersections, signs reminding people to leash their dogs, and a small retaining wall on lakefront paths.
Jon Davis sits on the participatory budgeting leadership committee and facilitated my small group at the second community meeting at the United Church of Rogers Park. A somewhat tentative but enthusiastic facilitator with a paperback jammed in the back pocket of his cargo pants, Davis told me that he got interested in the process “because it’s a direct way to improve your world.”
Now that all the introductory assemblies are over, the community is shifting into research mode. Davis encouraged each of us in our small group — we ranged from a college student who had just moved to Chicago to a middle-aged Muslim woman who wanted to address trash pickup —to serve as community representatives or volunteers who develop the most promising projects. They work in committees to investigate the feasibility of proposed ideas, ultimately finalizing projects that are, as Moore put it, “worthy of being submitted to voters… We try very hard to avoid putting anything on ballot that cannot be implemented.”
Once those ideas are developed, they are pitched right back to the community. Neighborhood assemblies in the spring will introduce 20 well-supported projects, answer questions and take in feedback that may result in last-minute tweaking. Not long afterward, residents will arrive at the booth on voting day to choose four of their favorite proposals. The money is allotted to the top vote-getters, moving down the list until the money runs out.
Then the real work starts. Projects don’t simply materialize once they gain votes. They need follow-through that often requires complex collaboration between residents, city departments and utilities. Delays also happen because the process often introduces the city and its sister agencies to projects that have never been done before, requiring officials to create new procedures while themselves operating under budget cuts with reduced staffing and resources. Though many winning projects are already familiar sites in the community — like underpass murals and an outdoor shower at Loyola Park — others, like the Touhy Park Playground (a 2011 winner) and new sidewalks in key areas (2012), are still in progress.
Residents were somewhat dismayed that the money could not go to anything they liked. One young woman, dressed professionally in black and navy, asked how funds could support services that combat neighborhood gangs, which she said was the community’s number-one problem. Moore explained that the money could only be used for infrastructure, not programming or maintenance. “You could maybe build a skate park,” he said, “but you can’t create a new program.” Tree planting is eligible for menu money, as it comes under the “touch-and-feel” auspices of a capital project. Tree trimming is not, as it is a service of the city’s forestry division (which is apparently way behind on that work, judging by resident banter.)
It’s also not possible to invest, save, or build interest on this year’s menu money so that it can be funneled into an expensive high-impact project later on. There is no separate bank account for Ward 49 money: It is bond issue money that comes wholly through the city, which keeps the investment interest for itself. While menu money could roll over in previous years, Emanuel ended the practice.
In his opening comments at the community meetings, Moore preemptively batted back criticism that participatory budgeting will permit the majority to run over the minority — that residents from smaller groups will never see their interests represented among the most popular winning projects. “People in this community rise to the occasion,” Moore said. He noted that people with disabilities “are an important part of our community, but they’re not in great numbers.” Still, he said, last year an access ramp to the beach was one of the top vote getters.
While that anecdote is encouraging, it doesn’t fully address the tricky business of making sure participants in participatory budgeting fairly reflect the demographics of the district as a whole. At the Rogers Park meeting, about 35 percent of attendees were people of color, which is nearly the inverse of area’s demographic makeup — according to the 2010 Census, only about 39 percent of residents are white.
Yet what the meeting lacked in racial representation, it had in generational diversity. Older retirees, young professionals, college students, couples, single people and parents who brought their children along were in attendance. There were seven assemblies throughout the month at locations across the neighborhood. One was conducted entirely in Spanish. There were also meetings during the day at two high schools, intended to engage teenagers in the process. It’s noteworthy that the voting age for Ward 49’s participatory budgeting program is 16, and there is no citizenship requirement — only residency in the neighborhood.
So how to negotiate the interests of everyone — from the retired professional with a green card to that sulky 16-year-old from down the block — without shortchanging anyone? That’s the hard part. Look, for instance, at the decidedly unsexy yet essential work of street resurfacing. In participatory budgeting, people do not tend to vote for resurfacing projects, unless they happen to live on that street. While arterial streets were mostly handled by other budget sources, Moore said ,“for residential streets, if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.”
Ward 49 countered that by refashioning the ballot. Now, voters not only select their favorite projects, but also choose what percentage of the total menu money should be allotted to resurfacing and street lighting projects across the neighborhood. The winning percentage is guaranteed toward street maintenance, leaving the balance to pay for the top vote-getters.
At the Sullivan High School assembly, the brown-haired woman who had earlier been thinking of dinner and scotch spent a lot of time during the Q&A session talking about how resurfacing on her street had skipped her block. Up until this year, before district lines were redrawn, she had been a Ward 40 resident, and she wondered why money there hadn’t finished the project. What could be done through the participatory budgeting process to patch the difference on her block?
This led to a lengthy back-and-forth with Moore, overwhelming the raised hands of other residents. Not long later, when we broke into groups, the brown-haired woman and her companion sidled for the exit.
“You can’t leave now!” Moore said from the front of the room.
The woman assumed an apologetic look and explained, really, they did need to leave, they had promises to keep.
“Well, then, there goes your block!” Moore joked. The rest of us laughed and almost didn’t hear the woman, who was heading closer to the door, joke back: “That’s block-mail!”“No,” Moore countered, “that’s politics.”
Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.