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April 2013

Revolutionary Civics in Action

In the participatory budgeting project’s inaugural year, New Yorkers at an East Harlem neighborhood assembly for seniors helped decide how capital dollars in their district would be spent. Photo: Office of then-Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito
Every New Yorker has things they want improved—broken playgrounds, outdated library computers, park paths that become ponds when it rains, just for starters. Last year, for the first time, residents in some neighborhoods got to spend millions of City dollars to fix some of the more pressing problems.

Four City Council members gave a portion of their capital funds to a participatory budgeting project, making New York the second city in the country to try it. Last year, a $70,000 grant to Community Voices Heard supported the project. Thousands of New Yorkers submitted and voted on hundreds of proposals, eventually allocating $5.6 million to 27 projects in the participating districts. Some projects that didn’t garner enough votes to “win” still got funded through their City Council member.

Winning projects included security cameras and refurbished playgrounds at public housing developments; technology upgrades at schools and libraries; a community composting system in Gowanus; and new bathrooms in a Park Slope kindergarten (which were so bad that children avoided them and risked classroom accidents).

Although the money spent on the participatory budgeting (PB) project was only 0.06 percent of the City’s capital budget, it had a broader impact. In the words of City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito: “Unlike general elections, PB voters were not excluded due to immigrant or parolee status. Historically disenfranchised groups such as people of color, low-income people, and residents whose primary language is not English, participated at higher rates in the PB process than they did in the general election.”

Because of the experiment’s success, this year four more Council members are giving part of their purse to the cause, and so are we. A $70,000 renewal grant to Community Voices Heard will support management of the expanded $10 million project and try to bring participatory budgeting to community development block grants, public housing expenditures, and allocation of other discretionary funds.

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