Putting In Their 2 Cents
In the Press
ON a weeknight in mid-March, a room in the Park Slope Armory Y.M.C.A. that is frequently used for children’s birthday parties was packed with tables draped in pale yellow, 99-cent-store, vinyl coverings and topped with propped-up tri-fold poster boards.
About 100 people bumped and jostled their way to the snack table lined with bowls of popcorn and pretzels. Eager presenters button-holed passers-by. It looked like a middle-school science fair. But the buzz in the room wasn’t over homemade solar system models or photosynthesis; it was the sound of revolutionary civics in action.
The event in Brooklyn was part of something called participatory budgeting, in which constituents in four City Council districts were given control over a slice of their council members’ discretionary budgets — $1 million in each district. In a process that began in October, they proposed projects, researched their viability and ran them by city agencies. This week, voters will finish choosing which of the proposals can move forward. Results are expected to be released this week.
When Keith Christiansen volunteered to take part, he didn’t expect to become the patron saint of Public School 124 bathrooms in Park Slope. Yet, whenever someone lingered near his display at the Armory, Mr. Christiansen pounced, beginning a fiery pitch about how one little vote might fix an architectural wrong that left children with little privacy in the school’s restrooms. The backdrop to his argument: photographs of toilets in stalls barely wider than the toilets themselves, where a child and a door cannot co-exist. The solution, apparently, was to omit the doors.
Under a proposal that Mr. Christiansen is championing, the girls’ bathrooms would be adjusted to include stall doors, and missing tile in the boys’ bathroom would be replaced, all at a cost of $150,000.
“I can’t believe that this has to be on the ballot,” Mr. Christiansen said.
This is only the second time that participatory budgeting, originally developed in Brazil, has been tried in the United States, and the first time in New York City, said Josh Lerner, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit organization. Whether it will become entrenched here is unclear. But what is known is that over the past six months, 250 regular New Yorkers jumped into the trenches and dirtied their hands with democracy. The point of the experiment in October was to counter people’s cynical view of government by inviting them to participate in the very process they mistrust. To some extent, it worked.
Of the more than a dozen participants interviewed for this article, all said the process had emboldened them to stay involved in their communities and to continue pushing their representatives to work on the projects they thought would benefit their neighborhoods. Still, skepticism runs deep. Some said they were concerned that they would ultimately be defeated by the powers that be.
“So far, I love feeling like we have some say in what is done,” said Maggie Tobin, a participant from Kensington, Brooklyn, in Council District 39. But as the ideas pass to the city agencies involved, she said, “I find myself already being distrustful.”
PARTICIPATORY budgeting was created in 1989, when the city government in Porto Alegre, Brazil, responded to a call by civic groups for more input into government decisions. Used as a way to introduce transparency and restore faith in the system, it involved residents who were on the fringes of the democratic process, like poor people. Over the years, the residents were able to build clinics and develop sewage systems in villages.
In 2004, the government leadership shifted, and local experts say that fewer people are taking part and that more than 1,000 approved projects have been stalled. Nonetheless, the practice continues in Porto Alegre and has expanded to about 300 cities in Brazil and elsewhere.
“Despite its limitations, there are strong elements that can contribute to the American society — particularly because there is a crisis and the debate about distribution of wealth is on the agenda,” said Adalmir Antonio Marquetti, a professor of economics at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil and an authority on participatory budgeting.
Except for an alderman in Chicago who started the process in his district two years ago, politicians haven’t exactly been champing at the bit to hand over control of their budgets. But there has been a gentle nudge by the Participatory Budgeting Project to introduce the concept to other cities. It hosted talks in New York City, where the Chicago alderman, Joe Moore, and other experts discussed the process.
Ultimately, Mr. Lerner painted a compelling picture of engaged residents that persuaded four council members to take part: Brad Lander of Brooklyn, who represents Ms. Tobin and Mr. Christiansen; Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes the Upper West Side, East Harlem and Mott Haven in the Bronx; Eric A. Ulrich, who represents the Rockaways in Queens; and Jumaane D. Williams, whose district stretches from East Flatbush to Midwood, Brooklyn.
The proposals gave a clear picture of each district’s priorities. In Ms. Mark-Viverito’s district, park, school and public-housing improvements were common topics. In Mr. Ulrich’s district, beachfront and parks projects dominated. For Mr. Lander’s district, schools were a main concern. And in Mr. Williams’s area, projects involving security cameras, lighting, youth programs and schools were proposed.
One of the goals of the process was to involve people who weren’t already active in politics. That seems to have been at least partially achieved: While some of the participants were affiliated with civic-minded organizations, almost 40 percent said they rarely voted in elections, according to data from the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group that collected information throughout the participatory budget process. About 20 percent of participants had household incomes under $25,000, and more than half were female.
Ms. Tobin, of Kensington, is what some would call a squeaky wheel. After a car accident left a neighborhood boy in a wheelchair and another car crashed into another neighbor’s home, she has been lobbying the Transportation Department to put a stop sign at Chester Avenue and Louisa Street, using a barrage of phone calls, pictures and e-mails. She has contacted the department so often, she said, that officials know her by name; she thinks they recognize her by sight, too, since they seem to duck her at community board meetings.
The participants became part of the budget process in different ways. Some heard about it by word of mouth. Others were invited by a civics group or their council members, as in Ms. Tobin’s case. “I feel like Kensington has been overlooked by politicians for many years now,” she said, adding that her goal was to change that.
Ms. Tobin’s stop-sign project wasn’t big enough for the budget process: projects had to be able to last at least five years with minimal maintenance, and each proposal had to cost at least $35,000. Ideas for how to spend the money came from seemingly everywhere, not just the people who signed on to participate. There was a Web site that allowed people to submit ideas, and there were neighborhood assemblies, where more proposals were gathered.
At the initial meetings in October, council members and people working with the Participatory Budgeting Project laid out the process for constituents, and from there, some people volunteered to be budget delegates. The delegates broke into smaller committees based on their interests and the scope of the proposals — transportation, parks, education and more. They spent the next five months looking into every suggestion that came their way.
Ms. Tobin seized the opportunity to address the absence of green space in Kensington. To illustrate, she animatedly explained that about 20 children practiced Mexican folk dancing for hours every week on the sidewalk on her block. Around the corner on low-traffic Sabbath days, Ecuadoreans play soccer in the middle of a street near a synagogue.
One way to increase green space, Ms. Tobin thought, would be to expand a traffic triangle that had recently been created and landscaped at Church Avenue and 35th Street. She proposed making it larger and adding a human sundial, through which a person’s shadow will tell time from cities across the world. Not everyone on her streets and sidewalks committee believed that was the best use of public money.
Another group wanted to create a safer way to cross the intersection at Ocean Parkway and Church Avenue, which the group called a deathtrap, saying that the lights change before pedestrians can clear the street.
“It wasn’t always about Wi-Fi in the park or rosebuds on every corner,” Colin Klebanoff of Kensington said, adding that he uses that crosswalk regularly and had nearly been run down more times than he could count. That kicked off a debate over whether the community first needed a place to congregate or a safe way to get to a place to congregate.
“Sometimes the discussions got uncomfortable,” Ms. Tobin said, adding that she often bit her lip to keep from screaming. “It seemed like our group was torn between form over function or function over form.”
Though they couldn’t always see eye to eye, they united over a common bond: a feeling that government agencies — in this case, the Transportation Department — weren’t really interested in their ideas.
For Ms. Tobin, that feeling was encapsulated by the department’s response to her proposal, which felt like a dismissal, even if it didn’t directly turn her down. “The 35th Street Triangle Public Space Proposal will continue to be developed as local groups work to meet Department of Transportation requirements for pedestrian plazas,” the department wrote in an e-mail. (Later, it told her that her plan would require an agreement with a nonprofit agency willing to maintain the space and that it also didn’t have time to study the feasibility of closing the nearby street before the voting was scheduled.)
At the onset of the participatory budgeting process, Councilman Lander shared Ms. Tobin’s concern about dealing with the agencies. But he felt different at the end.
“I understand why people might have found the system bureaucratic or slow to get responses out,” he said. “But I found the agencies kind of excited.”
FOR a project to make it onto the ballot, government agencies were supposed to give a thumbs up. Generally, initial ideas were vetted by the delegates through at least one face-to-face meeting with a representative of the appropriate agency. After that, most committees relied on council members’ staff to serve as liaisons.
Some delegates wouldn’t be swayed from their goals, even if the government agencies were less than enthusiastic. In East Flatbush, a parks committee envisioned a green wonderland for children. It had in mind a series of landscaped areas livening up the streets that neighborhood children use to walk to school. The vision included gardens where students would grow and sell vegetables, some needing greenhouses, vertical walls for plants or pavilions. The plan also involved better use of existing gardens, like the one on the playground next to Public School 152.
When the committee sent the idea to the parks department, it was told that the plan couldn’t be financed through the participatory budgeting process, said Susannah Laskaris, who worked on the proposal and who teaches gardening at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Ms. Laskaris said she was told that some elements of the proposal didn’t fall under the parks department’s jurisdiction, but that other aspects might be appropriate for alternative sources like Grow NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental issues.
Ms. Laskaris and her committee, originally invigorated with a vision, felt defeated. “Our conversations started to get to the point of, What are we doing this for? Just potholes?” she said.
They also felt that there were parts of the plan, especially improvements for infrastructure like fencing and a water fountain, that could make an existing garden more useable and that fell within the scope of participatory budgeting, Ms. Laskaris said.
Vickie Karp, a parks department spokeswoman, said the agency had no direct role in the project or authority over it, “so it’s not about our agency per se.”
The group said it believed strongly that its neighborhood needed a proposal like this, and it would not scale back. In the end, Councilman Williams added it to the ballot. Now, Mr. Williams said, his constituents “understand the hurdles and obstacles they have to get through” for the project. “If, as a community, they decide they want to get through them together,” he added, “I’m all for that.”
GETTING your council member to sign on is one thing, but swaying voters is another. That is Mr. Christiansen’s concern. In a district where schools are everything, he says, he will have to make a leap of faith to trust that his neighbors will look beyond their zoned school in voting for projects. But if he can make that jump, he says, there’s no reason others can’t.
Mr. Christiansen’s original idea was to create a green laboratory and outdoor teaching space at Middle School 88 in Park Slope, where he teaches English. But when he saw the needs at other schools, he pulled his own project from his committee. During the budgeting process, every committee was asked to whittle its proposals to roughly five that would get on the ballot. To get there, Mr. Christiansen and his fellow committee members decided to use need — which they collectively decided to measure by the percentage of students in the schools receiving free lunches — as the deciding factor. They also looked for projects at schools that had no advocates on the committee, which is how Mr. Christiansen became the champion for a project at a school in which he had never set foot.
Throughout the process, there was argument and debate, some heated and some healthy. But that is exactly what Mr. Christiansen and other participants said was the most positive part. Agencies and politicians aside, strangers found a way to work together and commit to honoring one another’s priorities, while considering the good of their neighborhoods. And that ultimately was the point. “Maybe I should’ve fought for the garden at my school and ducked for cover,” Mr. Christiansen said. “Now I’m arguing for some complete strangers’ toilets.”
Luis Vieira contributed reporting from Porto Alegre, Brazil.