Last March, Design Trust hosted a Public Space Potluck at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn to highlight the MTA’s ongoing budget woes and service cuts. Seven months later, the national recession drags on, crippling municipal budgets that fund many kinds of public space, from parks to libraries to subways.
New Yorkers aren’t alone in feeling the squeeze of tightened budgets, or in the way all of us tend to avoid tough conversations about how to pay for programs and services we value. As we head towards mid-term elections next Tuesday, it’s good to remember that politicians aren’t the only ones who can decide how public dollars get spent. This guest post was written by Josh Lerner,Co-Director of The Participatory Budgeting Project, an organization that works with elected officials, government agencies, and community groups to open up public budgets to public participation.
Public spaces are not cheap. This is especially obvious in an economic crisis, when funding is being slashed left and right. Advocates for public transportation, parks, libraries, schools, and other services are each fighting to protect their slice of the budget pie, but as the pie shrinks, it gets harder and harder to balance these demands. What can we do to address this long-term problem?
Right now, not much. In New York and elsewhere, we leave these critical budget decisions to a handful of unaccountable public agencies and politicians. Community members have no real power over how the budget pie is sliced, even though we have a wealth of knowledge and are deeply affected by budget decisions. Is this what democracy looks like?
New York might be able to learn some new tricks from Chicago, of all places. Last year, Chicago Alderman Joe Moore became the first elected official in the US to let the public decide how to spend taxpayer dollars on public spaces.
Through a process called “participatory budgeting,” Moore invited all residents of his ward to allocate his $1.3 million discretionary budget. Through over six months of meetings, community members learned how the budget works, researched and developed spending proposals, and put these proposals to a public vote. The top vote-getters are now being implemented, including community gardens, bike lanes, street lighting, street and sidewalk resurfacing, and public art.
Participatory budgeting (PB) may be new to the US, but it is quite common around the world. The first PB was launched in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1990. Since then, over 1,000 cities have developed similar processes for their municipal budgets, throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Countries such as the United Kingdom and Dominican Republic have even passed laws requiring that all local governments implement PB. States, counties, public housing authorities, schools, and community organizations have also used PB for their budgets.
This Friday, October 29th, The Design Trust is co-sponsoring a public forum on participatory budgeting. Alderman Moore will share his experience, and New York City Council Members, Community Board managers, and community activists will discuss whether participatory budgeting might work in New York. The event will take place at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn at 5:00pm, and it is open to the public. For more info, click here.