A look at Participatory Budgeting in Cambridge, MA

What kinds of ideas do the residents of Cambridge care most about?

This past year I participated, pun intended, in the Cambridge Participatory Budgeting process as a budget delegate. I’ve written about that experience here. As I said in that post, I think Participatory Budgeting is a really interesting idea and I hope it receives more attention from city governments.

One of the inevitable results of something like Participatory Budgeting is that the average resident only ever sees a small fraction of all the ideas that were submitted. Having actually gone through a number of those ideas manually as a budget delegate, this is probably a good thing since many overlap each other and some are not entirely serious.

The downside of this is that it’s hard to gauge what it is that Cambridge residents want to solve in general. As a resident, you only see the ideas that fit into the city’s PB guidelines and even then only a select few of those.

I think Participatory Budgeting ideas might provide us with a lot of insight into what it is our neighbors are thinking about and wanting to solve. So with that in mind, I recently took a list of every idea that’s ever been submitted in a Cambridge Participatory Budgeting cycle to find out more about what ideas my neighbors have.

What types of ideas are most popular?

The Cambridge Participatory Budget separates ideas submitted by the community into categories. Over the years, these categories have slightly changed but can be broadly placed into the following categories:

  • Streets, Sidewalks & Transit
  • Environment, Health & Safety
  • Parks, Recreation & Education
  • Culture & Community
  • Youth Education & Technology

So I looked at how many ideas over the years were submitted in each of these categories. The most popular category for ideas was Streets, Sidewalks & Transit. Probably not all that surprising since all of us use and are affected by this category in our lives daily.

One thing to note about these findings is that technology ideas weren’t broken out into their own category until the most recent PB Cycle (June — December 2017) and the Youth category didn’t start until PB Cycle 3 (June — December 2016).

Next, I thought it would be interesting to look at the popularity of these categories in each cycle.

Interest in PB over time

Breaking out these idea categories by year reveals that Streets, Sidewalks & Transit has always been popular but really gained popularity in the most recent PB Cycle. It also shows that Environment, Health & Safety ideas peaked in the 2015 cycle but has lost popularity in each cycle since.

The # of ideas submitted by category type over time

Specific Topics

The last thing I was curious about was within each category what kinds of topics were most popular. This could give us a better idea of what the residents of Cambridge are concerned about or want to improve.

By using Google’s Natural Language API and cleaning up a bit of the results, I was able to find out how often a particular topic was mentioned in a submitted idea across all PB cycles. The below table is a result of this analysis.

There are a couple interesting insights from this data. If you ignore the top result, Cambridge, bike lanes are the most popular topic of interest. Also near the top are parks, sidewalks, libraries, and intersections.

Outside of bike lanes, most of these popular topics are just a reflection of common city life and would most likely be the most popular idea topics had PB been going on for 50 years. Bike lanes presents an interesting topic since they are a relatively recent addition to most cities in the US.

I also wanted to look at how these topics trended over the years. Were some topics popular in one year but not the next? Are the same topics always popular, year after year? Maybe by looking at the trends, we can get a better sense for how residents are feeling about the progress of things each year.

Here’s a look at the popularity trends of a few topics (wi-fi, bike lanes, benches, parking, and housing) over the years:

Bike lanes seem to be becoming much more popular of a topic over time but the rest seem to slowly declining in interest. This is particularly interesting in respect to parking since a lot of the complaints about bike lanes in the public have been due to parking. This either means it is overblown or the residents submitting ideas for Participatory Budgeting are of different opinion than those making their voices heard in the media.

This decline in interest could also mean that the city is doing a good job at addressing these particular issues, that residents are shifting their preferences to other things, or that residents have figured out which topics are best for PB and which ones aren’t. Keep in mind, however, that the sample size here is pretty small and can be heavily influenced by one motivated resident[1].

Closing Thoughts

As an advocate of Participatory Budgeting as a unique form of city governance, I had a lot of interest in seeing what my fellow Cambridge residents were interested in. Overall, it was intriguing to see the different trends of idea topics over time.

Participatory Budgeting is still a pretty new program in Cambridge so it is to be seen how successful it will be and how residents respond to it over time. The one major caveat with Participatory Budgeting is that it might not reflect the city’s overall preferences because only a select number participate in it.

However, it can still be a unique look at the city and its residents over time. What are people concerned about? Are things getting better? Is the city addressing the issues residents want? I hope this exploration has answered some of these questions or sparked new ones.


All of the data used is available from Cambridge’s Open Data portal found here.

For replication, checking my methods, or your own interest, all the code and data I used for generating these findings can be found here.


Enjoy this analysis? It’s part of a series of data analyses I am doing on the city I live in, Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can find the rest of them here: https://medium.com/a-look-at-cambridge.


[1] PB has a bit of a submission problem. Because they don’t require any sign up, verifications, or limits, one person could submit any amount of ideas they want, under any name. Therefore, sometimes one person could submit a lot of ideas, which isn’t necessarily a reflection of Cambridge as a whole. This is actually reflected in the data by the fact that one person, Martha Older, submitted 69 ideas herself, which accounts to about 4% of all ideas total. Love your enthusiasm Martha.