Participatory budgeting: a new deal for citizens.

By Mark Anto
Recent statistics confirm that most Canadian cities need to find sustainable solutions to cope with decreasing participation rates in municipal elections, overdependence on property taxes as their main source of revenue, increasing demands due to population growth and crumbling infrastructure. These conditions leave property developers with a free reign on urban development while citizen grow increasingly disconnected from the political and economic decisions that impact their daily lives.
Faced with this realisation, policy makers and citizens have been proposing a series of alternative initiatives to empower municipalities and citizens. New funding models have been proposed to provide cities with supplementary diversified revenue streams. Organisations such as Open North, Better Budget Toronto and Montréal pour tous have been working to ensure that municipalities produce transparent and comprehensible budgets that engage, rather than disorient, citizens.
Another way to counter civic apathy is to put people in direct control of a part of their city’s budget. This process, known as participatory budgeting, gives citizens the right to propose, deliberate and vote on projects that will get funded by their city. Participatory budgeting creates a space for citizens to debate about the particular needs of their communities, receive information concerning different municipal budgeting processes and costs, as well as create a platform for dialogue and engagement to keep citizens active and involved between election campaigns.
Started in Porto Alegre in 1989, participatory budgeting has now been used in over 1500 cities around the world. Canada has also seen several examples of participatory budgeting processes, such as in Toronto’s community housing sector, in District 7 in Halifax and in the borough of Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal. The Montreal Urban Ecology Center (MUEC) is accompanying the town of St-Basile-le-Grand in its participatory budgeting process, one of the first such processes in Quebec. This summer and fall, the MUEC, in collaboration with the Participatory Budgeting Project, a leading organisation based in New York City, will be hosting a series of trainings and forums to help develop participatory budgeting knowledge and awareness in Canada.
Although participatory budgeting can present particular challenges in the first years of the process, as the community and elected officials learn how to negotiate new power dynamics, it allows both citizens and the municipality to identity key areas of intervention and develop sustainable solutions for the future. Its success is achieved when citizens are involved and engaged in every step of the way and when political will is present and committed to see the process developed over several years. Participatory budgeting then becomes part of a communities’ landscape and represents an excellent way to ensure that our cities respond to the needs of its citizens.