Chicago is divided into 50 wards. Each ward has an elected alderman who enjoys a $1.3 million annual discretionary fund for capital improvements: fixing potholes, adding street lights, erecting bus shelters, and so forth. Given the city’s reputation for political patronage, these 50 budget lines might seem like thinly veiled opportunities for machine politicians to reward their cronies. But one alderman, Joe Moore of Ward 49, has elected to spread the wealth in an admirably inclusive, remarkably innovative fashion. His jurisdiction, centered on Chicago’s northernmost lakeside neighborhood, Rogers Park, is the first in the United States to adopt a process called “participatory budgeting.”
In April, Moore invited all ward residents over the age of 16, regardless of citizenship or voter-registration status, to pick their eight favorites from a menu of 36 infrastructure projects, grouped in six categories: arts and other projects, parks and environment, public safety, streets, traffic safety, and transportation. Here’s a typical menu item:
Loyola Fieldhouse Speed Humps on 1100–1200 W. Greenleaf Ave. Installation of speed humps to slow traffic leaving and entering beach and Loyola Fieldhouse parking. Cost: $3,500
Volunteer committees researched and developed each proposal, based upon ideas submitted directly by residents and discussions at a series of neighborhood assemblies. The proposals that received the most votes would receive full funding from Moore’s $1.3 million budget (though some were contingent on buy-in from the City of Chicago and other bodies).
Out of a population of over 60,000, there were 1,652 votes cast, and 14 projects that got the green light.
At a moment when big government is in big disfavor, Ward 49’s Athenian experiment in direct democracy seems almost too good to be true. Can you imagine a plebiscite on the allocation of the $787 billion Obama stimulus plan? It’s hard to believe that participatory budgeting could work at a national scale. But it’s tempting nonetheless, especially given the disappointment that so many architects felt when the stimulus failed to produce a WPA-style transformation of the public realm.
Skeptics could point to California as an example of direct democracy gone awry. The state constitution allows any citizen who collects enough signatures to get a proposition on the ballot; with a simple majority vote, the proposition becomes (or repeals) a statute or constitutional amendment. The initiative process has its flaws, one being that while the people have the power to directly enact programs, they can also reject taxes that would keep the state budget in line.
Participatory budgeting is different, notably in that the amount of available funding is fixed. There’s no chance that the residents of Rogers Park will vote to build themselves a monorail system, the way the citizens of Springfield did in season four of The Simpsons, with disastrous results.
So how did the Ward 49ers choose to spend their $1.3 million? The list of approved projects, many of which are now under way, include sidewalk repairs, solar-powered trash cans, and community gardens. (The Loyola Fieldhouse speed bumps didn’t make the cut.) Small potatoes, perhaps, compared to the stimulus, or the $50 billion infrastructure improvement plan that President Obama proposed last month. But with a few, seemingly minor improvements, the residents of Chicago’s Ward 49 are taking control of their built environment in a major way.
The first-ever attempt at participatory budgeting began two decades ago, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a city of 1.5 million. What has the process accomplished there? According to the World Bank:
[N]ew public housing units, which sheltered only 1,700 new residents in 1986, housed an additional 27,000 in 1989. Sewer and water connections in the city … went up from 75 percent of total households in 1988 to 98 percent in 1997. The number of schools has quadrupled since 1986. Porto Alegre’s health and education budget increased from 13 percent in 1985 to almost 40 percent in 1996.
Something obviously clicked in Porto Alegre, because so far, some 140 municipalities in Brazil have adopted the participatory budgeting system, including São Paulo, the seventh largest city in the world.
In the February 2008 issue of ARCHITECT, we asked notables such as Richard Florida and Ron Paul, “How would you spend $1.6 trillion?”—the amount that the Urban Land Institute estimated that it would take to revitalize our nation’s infrastructure. It’d be interesting to see what kind of priorities the American people would set if President Obama opened his $50 billion proposal to the participatory budgeting process.
According to a poll conducted by the Transportation for America coalition, for instance, 82 percent of voters believe that the United States would benefit from an expanded and improved public transportation system. Sounds good to me. Clearly, $50 billion isn’t enough to fix everything, but we’ve got to start somewhere.