On Wednesday I attended one of the five meetings enabling Chicago residents to take their turn in decision making in their neighborhoods. I live in and attended the meeting for Chicago’s 46th Ward, whose alderman is James Cappleman.
Participatory Budgeting in a Nutshell
Participatory Budgeting is not a new concept; it has been practiced worldwide in various forms. Only relatively new in name, its modern adaptation began in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 1989. Giving power to the people in decision making about budget allocation, its debut in Chicago began in the 49th Ward and is this year being practiced in 4 of the 50 Aldermanic Wards. In the words of the PB Chicago website:
Participatory budgeting is grassroots democracy at its best. The process will make the aldermanic menu program more transparent and accessible, it will open up participation to people who have never before been involved and it will make government spending more effective. Who knows better what is needed in our communities than the people who live there?
“Menu money” in Chicago is money given to each Alderman to spend in his/her ward. $1.32 million was given to each Aldermanic Ward for 2012. In the 46th Ward, $1 million is allocated to Participatory Budgeting (the remaining $320,000 is for emergencies and/or cost overruns, a lesson learned after the 49th Ward’s first round of Participatory Budgeting).
After the preliminary meetings, volunteer Community Representatives will work to transform the ideas proposed at the meetings into proposals. This is not as daunting as it sounds, because the Representatives will work with the Alderman’s office and various City agencies to develop the proposals. After the proposals are created, they will be showcased in spring 2013 and voted on shortly thereafter.
The 46th Ward Meetings
Maria Elaine Hadden, the Project Coordinator of Chicago’s Participatory Budget Project, was present and the “key speaker” at Wednesday’s meeting. She gave an excellent introduction of the project and residents’ involvement in the process, which also included a video by local filmmaker Ines Sommer (link: Democracy in Action). The presentation was quick before moving on to group sessions in which community residents had the opportunity to express what they wish to see the money spent on.
While it was made clear that residents need not reside in the Ward to participate, only those living in the Ward are permitted to vote on the final proposals. What is unique about this form of democracy is that all residents can vote – not just U.S. citizens. The right to vote in local elections has been extended to non-citizen residents in some countries, like France, but hasn’t in the U.S. While foreign residents can still not participate in local elections, Participatory Budgeting enables residents – citizens or not – to have a voice in shaping the infrastructure of the communities they live and work in.
That said, all 6 or 7 participants of the group I was in live in the Ward (and all in the same area – there are 5 meetings at various locations across the Ward, and the location of Wednesday’s meeting just happened to be the closest to all of us it seems!), including Arline Welty, an author of an excellent blog, Bike Uptown. Some great ideas were brainstormed – initially, the ideas were transportation-focused, such as a buffered bike lane/traffic calming on Leland Ave. and the idea of extending the Berteau Greenway, whose eastern terminus will be Clark St. (at the western edge of the 46th Ward), briefly north on Clark, then east on Montrose – possibly to the Lakefront Trail. I think this was my favorite idea that would serve many neighborhoods and destinations. Reorganizing the intersection at Montrose, Broadway, and Sheridan was also proposed. Currently, this intersection is a veritable mess:
It’s not built for any other use but automobile traffic. It’s too long for pedestrians and fragmented for cycling. Placemaking was also proposed on the subject of this intersection: neighborhoods like Andersonville, for example, “brand” themselves with signage and identity, something Uptown lacks right now. With the new Wilson CTA station and the proposals put forth at this meeting, who knows what could become of Uptown? Perhaps this existing intersection could be the new gateway to Uptown.
Another idea was related to public safety: street lights that serve the sidewalk in addition to the street. When it’s dark, we don’t need to be illuminating just parked cars – we should be illuminating the sidewalks too. A community garden was also proposed, as well as playground improvements for local schools.
I was very happy with the ideas that were proposed. I’ve heard stories (not in Chicago) of public meetings gone awry, rendered unproductive by a group of residents that overpower the individual ideas of other participants. All of the proposals were related to transportation infrastructure and making non-automotive uses safer and thus more attractive in the neighborhood, public safety (an issue in Uptown), or beautification/placemaking.
I volunteered as a Community Representative and hope to become involved in the ideas that were proposed at this and the other 4 meetings. It’s not often that residents have a say in how their Ward’s money is spend, and Chicago is a sort of pioneer in American Participatory Budgeting. I’m glad that residents are thinking of ways to make our communities more lively, safe, and great places to live, work, and visit – and that the local government is enabling this change.
I hope to keep you updated on this as it progresses and know that its success will inspire other Wards – and hopefully other cities – to follow suit!
NOTE: There’s still one Participatory Budgeting meeting left for the 46th Ward! Tuesday, October 30, 7pm – 9pm at The People’s Church of Chicago (941 W Lawrence – map). I won’t be able to attend because I’m attending a public meeting about Chicago’s upcoming Bike Sharing Network (info here), but I hope to learn about some of the other great ideas residents come up with!