In fall 2011, four New York City councilmembers distributed posters and emails asking “How would you spend $1 million to improve your neighborhood?” These were invitations to a direct democracy initiative called Participatory Budgeting, and they encapsulated the highly appealing design of this program, in which residents meet in assemblies to share ideas, develop proposals with the direction of the councilmember’s staff and city agencies, present them in expositions, and decide on the winners in a district-wide vote.
Typical “PB” projects include playground upgrades, community center renovations and Smart Boards for public schools.
In the four years since those first posters appeared, PB has spread from four to 24 districts, accepted as a tool to increase political participation and government transparency.
But getting PB to live up to its promise of inclusivity requires a significant investment of labor from the councilmembers and their staff. Without strategic outreach, PB draws largely from the “usual suspects”: The Urban Justice Center reports that without targeted outreach, those who identify as white, with incomes over $50,000 tend to be overrepresented in PB sessions, while those who identify as Asian, Latino/s, and African American, with incomes under $35,000 tend to be underrepresented.
The Urban Justice Institute notes that community groups may be a pivotal way to draw often marginalized groups into the process. In Councilman Stephen Levin’s District 33 (which includes Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Boerum Hill, Vinegar Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, and Bedford–Stuyvesant ), “participation from low-income people and people of color was fairly robust,” according to the UJC, and this was at least partly due to targeted outreach to seven public housing developments, and the help of Furee (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) and Community Voices Heard.
In areas of high inequality, PB does bring together people who may otherwise pass silently on the street.
This year, Councilmember Antonio Reynoso’s office (District 34, covering Bushwick and Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Ridgewood in Queens) led 15 assemblies. Several volunteers went on to become budget delegates, honing proposals in response to city agencies. Among them were Charlotte Binns, who grew up on the Upper West Side and in London before moving to one of what she called the “gentrifying condos” in Williamsburg; and Lavonne McLamb, who grew up in Ten Eck (or Williamsburg) Houses. Both women have two young children, and both have civic stakes beyond PB: McLamb recently became Vice President of the Tenants’ Association. Binns created and recently sold a company that provides technology development for nonprofits, and is a community organizer for Transition North Brooklyn, an Occupy-inspired community program focused on environmental sustainability.
McLamb focused on a proposal to renovate a playground in Williamsburg Houses that currently consists of one jungle gym on a concrete surface and a seal sculpture that shoots out a thin, sad arc of water in the summer. Several years ago, a dumpster appeared near the jungle gym, to catch debris from reconstruction of the roof. It was never removed, and though a concrete wall separates the dumpster from the jungle gym, McLamb and other residents say the dumpster smells and attracts rats.
Binns worked on a proposal with the Brooklyn Arbor School, whose principal Eve Irizarry and others had already been thinking of how improve the outdoor area of the school, to green it and to provide play space for students as well as public space for the neighborhood. Binns contacted architect Darrick Borowski and artist and designer Marta Lwin, and together they created an illustration that would allow people to have a sense of how the space could take shape: a green wall to shield the neighborhood from the exhaust off the BQE, which runs along one side of the school, a garden, and a basketball court and benches open to public.
‘No bad ideas’
Many delegates come into PB with a project in mind that would benefit themselves and those close to them. But some delegates show up as blank slates, and reach out to various communities to gather their ideas and shepherd their proposals. Binns worked on two proposals along with the Arbor School, and McLamb spread the word and invited people to bring their own ideas, doing outreach in Ridgewood as well as Williamsburg.
Binns, McLamb and about 12 others met regularly with Reynoso Chief of Staff Jennifer Gutierrez, trekking out on cold, snowy January and February weeknights to the empty, fluorescent cafeteria of the Diana Jones senior center in Bushwick, where they all quietly honed the wording on their proposals, and to the basement of the Bushwick library where they plotted out voting locations along with staff members and volunteers.
As they attended meetings and workshops throughout the winter, budget delegates quickly got a sense of the range of needs across their districts. Several of the delegates I spoke with emphasized that “there are so many good projects” and that they would definitely participate again, whether their project won or not. But at one point at a February meeting, McLamb said “This is exciting, but it’s also frustrating. Some things you shouldn’t have to compete for.”
Josh Lerner, who heads up the Participatory Budgeting Project, adapted the program from a larger one in Puerto Alegre, Brazil. He says the initiative can bring about “more equitable spending.” Relative to the 20 percent of overall budget that the residents of Puerto Alegre have determined through PB, the million dollars of capital funds per district here could be seen as training wheels.
Along with improvements such as green walls, bioswales, and Smart Boards, PB expos feature less cutting-edge proposals like fixing toilets and providing air conditioning in schools. Delegates and staff have heard from parents who have to keep their asthmatic children home from school on hot days. And Council staff have heard from parents whose children contracted bladder infections from holding their pee.
Nell Mermin participated in PB in Councilman Brad Lander’s District 39 (District 39, covering Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, and Boro Park) for the second time this year, honing a proposal for air conditioning for the P.S. 124 cafeteria, along with principal Annabell Burrell.
The disparity in projects up for the vote bothers her: “Do I want to fund a green roof, or a bathroom for preschoolers?” Mermin said. “What is PB, and what are we supposed to be funding here? Aren’t there departments that should be funding these projects? And I think that is a larger issue.”
Facilitators at the events tell participants that “There are no bad ideas,” and offer a quick directive— “Step up, step back”—for the sessions in which people share their ideas in groups: thus curbing those who may go on too long, and encouraging those who tend to hesitate. All ideas are written on a board and discussed, and then each group votes to determine the top three proposals. Group winners are presented to everyone at the assembly at the end of the event.
In Reynoso’s district, Members of Scout Troop 26 (the “Sea Bees”) came to an assembly thinking of funding for trips out of the city, or for tech equipment to learn about robotics. But these ideas did not even make it onto the spreadsheet of proposals for their table at the Williamsburg Community Center assembly. When I asked the Sea Bees what happened to their ideas, one of the young men said that their table had been joined by a few older people, who were concerned about safety. “This is for the community, and safety comes first for the community,” he said. So they scrapped their ideas and proposed security cameras and street light installations for a few very dark streets within the housing complex.
Can it scale up?
Councilman Lander, according to Mermin, took toilet repair off the PB ballot and shifted the issue to the City Council, asking for a separate budget line for bathroom upkeep. The councilman’s move points out how PB could act as a kind of on-ramp, establishing a pragmatic, engaged relationship with a local politician that could move civic engagement from a discrete project to more systemic change. While Josh Lerner advocates for scaling up the program in New York through the allocation of more funds, PB may also act as a kind of on-ramp to citizens’ involvement in more systemic issues.
But the degree to which PB works to bring a diverse population into engagement in larger, more systemic issues is hard to track. Lisa Bloodgood, a staffer for Councilman Levin, has run the program for three years. She says she has not yet seen the program act as a transition to political involvement on a more systemic scale.
“The closest I’ve seen is [on the issues of] bathrooms: People writing letters to the Chancellor, talking to the Department of Education.” She says through PB the councilman’s office has at least established communication, and is hearing from people about these issues. “I feel it is very much a pilot,” she says, “so it is hard to say where it is going to take us, or what people are going to do with it. I don’t think it has found its solid footing.”
One problem that has emerged is the slowness with which agencies implement some of the winning projects. Bloodgood says, “Each project needs one to two years to be fully implemented and the agencies, such as NYCHA or Parks, don’t move until all the funding is there and available.”
Lavonne McLamb coaxed people who told her “They’re never going to do anything for us. They don’t care about us,” that they had to at least try. She and other Williamsburg Houses residents were thrilled when the project won. But Carrie Gadsden, who campaigned for a renovated community center in Gowanus Houses, and others have waited while their hard-earned PB projects remained in limbo for years. Bloodgood notes “Even the most passionate people can be frustrated after the third year.” Without oversight and follow-through, the very people that PB so effectively drew in to local politics may end up feeling more hopeless than they did before.
And as with many district-level agreements, PB lacks legal protection, leaving unfinished projects vulnerable if a new councilmember leaves office.
On the other hand, as PB delegates get some exposure to the workings of government agencies, they are less likely blame councilmembers for things beyond their control. While agencies responsible for the projects (such as Parks and NYCHA) held hour-long presentations for delegates, their selection criteria—agencies reject PB projects they find unworkable–remained opaque. “There was a giant wall,” Binns said, while noting that the upside for councilmembers is that their constituents become “more sympathetic to the council member’s realities.”
Speaking on the value of “scaling up” PB, Lerner referred to the Puerto Alegre example, where, in an area of high inequality, the program doubled sanitation coverage and the number of students in schools. In New York, Lerner’s goal for PB’s equity effect—”One person one vote, rather than how much money you have or how much power you have deciding on what gets built in your neighborhood”—references the intense concerns over inequality and displacement.
Asked if he thinks PB can draw people into engaging on more systemic issues, Reynoso said “I think that is absolutely possible.” He noted “The most popular idea we received for how to spend $1 million was “affordable housing”. That is without a doubt, the number one need, however, PB could not meet that need. What they then began to ask was why not, and why was there so much luxury development in their neighborhood that wasn’t for them, and finally, what could they do to change that? This shift in conversation opened up the opportunity to discuss zoning rules, ULURP, et cetera.”
Many participants report that their involvement in PB is the first time that they have taken part in “solving a community problem,” according to the Urban Justice Center. Shehab Chowdhury, who studied political science at Baruch College, was excited when his father, who is active in the Bengali community, told him about PB in Kensington. Before PB, Chowdhury said, there had been a strong distrust of government within the Bengali community, and a real lack of communication among residents of different incomes and ethnic backgrounds. “These discussions would not be happening without Participatory Budgeting,” Chowdhury said. “It is a receptive process, and people are being heard.”
Lander, who shows up at almost every PB assembly in his district, describes in his blog posts the program in a way that seems to reflect his experience of the best and worst of political work in general. He says PB both inspires creativity in the service of a common good and is a lesson in the difficulties of getting things done in government. What those lessons may lead to remains to be seen.