More Democracy! Considering Mechanisms To Augment Civic Life

by Andrea Marpillero-Colomina and Laura Castro

Urban Systems Lab
Jan 25 · 14 min read

Part of the More Democracy Triptych. Here are the second and third pieces.

The answer to the shortcomings of democracy is more democracy. [1] Participative mechanisms are crucial for creating equitable and inclusive public life. Participation is key to creating successful public life. The first step towards transforming democratic participation is to change the format and forums for public engagement. Economic and political power is in the hands of a few, and these few are often driven by political agendas, or their own subjective moral or social considerations. In gentrifying neighborhoods and other contested geographies, democratic processes must take into account the needs of the cultural communities that exist there. To transform the public realm in ways that do not provoke destructive conflict, we must deploy new participative mechanisms that fully recognize each stakeholder’s right to shape civic life and public space.

Effective engagement is a crucial component of democracy in the short- medium- and long-term. In places where rates of civic participation, knowledge, and trust are high, civic trust grows and in turn can drive more inclusion and greater equity in democratic processes. As a process, inclusion recognizes and respects the needs and values of the public. Inclusionary processes recognize and respect needs and values of the people who use a public good, ultimately enabling all members of a community (or set of cultural communities) to shape and share it. Not only are public goods themselves important; so are the frameworks within which they came to be. As Marxist (yeah, baby!) geographer David Harvey posits: “The urban process implies the creation of a material physical infrastructure for production, circulation, exchange and consumption.”[2]

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Ballot box at the New York City Council District 39 Participatory Budgeting Ideas Expo, April 2019. Image: Bklyner.

Many community engagement approaches are flawed and do not effectively or holistically capture the full range of stakeholder concerns, needs, and ideas. Elected officials often make decisions driven by their desire to be reelected; even if it means sacrificing previously established policy priorities. This can result in an inequitable (re) allocation of shared public space and the erosion of civic trust in public goods. A democratic process that does not fully consider the differing emotional, moral, and social considerations of distinct cultural communities can lead to disastrous outcomes.

When the New York City Department of Transportation installed a new bike lane on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the simmering tensions between the cultural groups sharing (or trying to not share) the neighborhood’s public space erupted, reaching a vigorous boil. Longtime Hasidic Jewish residents saw the bike lane as an incursion, and a disrespect for their presence and their power in the community. To them, the bike lane created a thruway for hundreds of outsiders that they did not want entering their fiercely protected, culturally isolated enclave. For the newer, gentrifying hipster population, the pushback against the bike lane — eventually leading to its politically engineered removal two years after its installation — demonstrated the corruption and spatial injustice of the city government. Animosity between the Hasidim and hipsters in Williamsburg has continued to define their coexistence in the neighborhood over the past decade.

Formal community mechanisms, such as community boards, do not necessarily include the full breadth of stakeholders and local power structures. Indeed, in Williamsburg, the community board was dominated by Hasidim and their allies. The bike advocates pointed to this makeup as further evidence that civic and political representatives did not represent true public interest, with mixed effect.

Furthermore, bodies like community boards might impede development of new infrastructure and structural shifts toward implementation of more progressive policies. The tendency in formal decision-making bodies is to uphold the status quo. Consider the fact that widespread high-speed Internet access has changed the rules for pretty much every aspect of life, including, foremost, how we communicate and share information. We now conduct our lives online (and increasingly so, during the COVID era). And yet, public meetings often take place at inaccessible times for many people, particularly if they work irregular hours, multiple jobs, or have other obligations. Childcare needs, transit and ADA accessibility, and language barriers further inhibit participation.

The way to overcome this imbalance is democratize and expand the ways people can participate and exude power in community decision-making through mechanisms beyond voting. To counteract the effects of one constituency dominating the narrative, the terms and forum for engagement must become more egalitarian and more effective. Not every stakeholder has the same level of power, but mechanisms like the community board do not adequately consider the inequity in voice and in power. There is a need to develop better alternatives.

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To develop and sustain successful democracy, cities must support inclusion in processes that shape public discourse and space. Civic participation itself is an instrument of power that can grow the value of shared public goods.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is an effective answer to the problem of political disenfranchisement. It inaugurates a continued institutional mechanism for collaborative management of public resources by allocating budgetary funds according to democratic decision-making processes. The procedure is oriented by popular local councils and through government accountability concerning the effective implementation of such decisions. Participative mechanisms like participatory budgeting — that often include non-voters and youth — can increase the strength of democracy and democratic institutions, and mitigate shortcomings of traditional public formats and forums; creating new potential for engagement and innovation.

Let us look to the origins of participatory budgeting to understand how and where this mechanism developed and why it works. At a time when the United States is facing historical challenges in the conduct of its democratic institutions, it is relevant to analyze the organizational structure of this successful Brazilian experiment that intended to amplify the voices of citizens right after an authoritarian regime that lasted more than two decades.

A Worker’s Party government developed the PB model in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the 1990s. It became internationally famous through the World Bank’s financial incentives requiring that public plans funded by them had to apply this model as a counterpart. We would like to highlight that this model originated three decades ago as a State-regulated approach to participatory urban planning in a country with minimal experience with civic engagement in democratic processes.

During the Brazilian Military Regime (1964–1985), opportunities for community political exchanges were scarce, as meetings that were considered to have a political agenda were censored by the government, and its participants were prosecuted. Therefore, the few grassroots organizations that endured with their activities were limited to or focused on labor unions, neighborhood and street associations, soccer clubs, cooperatives, mother’s clubs, cultural groups, etc. They reclaimed the right to the land, worker’s rights, gender equality, and sustainability.

After the end of the military dictatorship, in 1989, Porto Alegre had a population of 1.3 million. The people elected a municipal government from the Workers Party at its first democratic election.[3] Porto Alegre is the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the extreme south of Brazil. Brazilian municipal institutions are organized into two elected bodies: the Mayor’s Office (“Prefeitura”), the local branch of the executive power, and the Chamber of Deputies (“Câmara dos Vereadores”), the local department of legislative power. The City has the autonomy to determine how to distribute its investment resources from municipal taxation, and state and federal allocations.

Porto Alegre’s PB was an innovative solution for local bottom-up urban planning. It is a hybrid framework that combines the Chamber of Deputies prerogative for the definition and approval of a budget proposal and the Mayor’s Office capacity to sanction it. The Porto Alegre Organic Law (that can be interpreted as an “Institutional Act”) from 1990 determines that the City must present and discuss its budget with the population before implementing it. Thus, PB is an institutional strategy that aims to deter authoritarian and lobbying postures from the government.

Investments made by the municipality can be classified into three major categories: personnel, public services, and works and equipment. Participatory budgeting can only be applied to the latter, but it is required that it be approved by the Chamber of Deputies before being implemented by the Mayor’s Office. In summary, in Porto Alegre, the executive power reserves a quota of approximately 10% of its total budget to be determined by PB [4], while the rest goes directly to the legislative power to distribute.

The resources allocated within the PB framework are distributed according to the criteria established autonomously by the units that actively participate in the process. Those units are structured by three institutional organs: 1) community organizations (popular councils that can be more or less organized, depending on its regional tradition or articulation); 2) the Plan and Budget Council (community representatives elected for the PB that articulate regional and thematic plenary assemblies); 3) planning and administrative staff from the City’s executive power in charge of managing the budgetary debate with citizens.

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Source: Authors

Figure: Diagram of the PB structure in Porto Alegre, Brazil, that has been internationally adopted by the UN and the World Bank since the 1990s as a model for State-led participatory budgeting processes.

As a mechanism of participation on a municipal scale, PB effectively assigns the decision-making to citizens, community organizations, and associations that voluntarily participate in the process. As a State-regulated procedure, the staff from the executive power that attends and manages all the assemblies — by registering participants, organizing the election of council delegates, and mediating the debates — are in charge of elaborating the City’s Investment Plan that will be presented to the legislative power in the Chamber of Deputies. After its approval by the legislative power, it is implemented by the mayor.

Although all citizens are invited to attend the public meetings, the incentive for engaging in participation is stated very clearly on the rules. The number of participants from one neighborhood is counted as one of the quantitative criteria that determines the allocation of City resources, as the number of delegates in the Council of the Government Plan and Budget is determined by the number of participants from each municipal region. Porto Alegre is divided into 17 regions, and, since the year 2000, for every ten participants attending the PB regional and thematic assemblies, their neighborhood can appoint one delegate. Because the redistribution of urban resources in favor of vulnerable social groups are oriented by urban initiatives presented in public hearings, it is a political demand that the region should have a strong community presence in the council.

PB legitimizes participation by allowing citizens to negotiate between peers and redistribute resources according to a timely popular demand, as it may be refined and updated on an annual basis. The rules that determine investment priorities are objective: they assign points to regions and themes according to general criteria negotiated by council delegates during the assemblies. The rationalized methodology of how these complex discussions are conducted by public organs while the decisions rest in the hands of the community is what drew attention from the United Nations and the World Bank in the 1990s.

The first landmark for the international diffusion of the method of Participatory Budgeting was the Habitat II meeting that took place in Istanbul in 1996. On this occasion, the city of Porto Alegre was awarded as one of the best urban management practices in the world. Five years later, in 2001, Porto Alegre hosted the First World Social Forum, when the city became a global reference for participatory democracy. International organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank begin to publish manuals on this policy, organize international meetings to bring together people interested in the topic and directly finance urban development plans that employ PB. These three major institutions legitimized the PB method on a global scale by promoting academic critiques, technical experimentation, staff training, and popular diffusion through publications and seminars on the PB.

The main idea of the PB method, as it was presented in the World Social Forum, is social transformation through an experience of radicalization of democracy. As the PB was disseminated around the globe mainly through initiatives led by the World Bank, its initial association with Porto Alegre was lost in the translation from a local political project to a global strategy. Thus, the progressive social and ideological content of its structure has become secondary in detriment of the financial and media approaches that have been carried out by multilateral economic institutions, and endorsed by international organizations. Nevertheless, the democratic aspect of the model lies in its malleability and possibility to adapt to different social contexts. For example, the World Bank remarks the fight against corruption as one of the PB’s significant accomplishments. For it to be accepted as a political method in the first place by local governments, it has to be distilled from ideological content to make it more technical.

The World Bank’s involvement with PB is an essential feature for the similarities noticed in the experiences of the African and Latin-American continents, as the institution has a clear orientation on how to implement the OP as a funding condition. But since the international acclamation of the model in the 2000s, there is no longer only one exact model for structuring PB programs, especially in the Global North, where the presence of World Bank infrastructure development grants are less common. Porto Alegre is an essential reference for the historical significance of PB, but, after its diffusion and adaptation to different local realities, it is no longer the only model recommended by the UN. This means that it has since been structured in response to the particular political, social, and economic environment of each city or state. Regarding the UN’s PB operations, they are concentrated in the Agency for Human Settlements, via UN-Habitat. For this reason, the Ecuadorian program developed in Quito served as a regional catalyst for the experience in cities located in the northern regions of South America, as it was the center of the UN Habitat program. As the UN has developed a global approach to PB, it has more funding for research and events; thus Quito became the place where the international communication strategies were created.

The central contradiction that we notice in a State-regulated PB is the arbitrary split of the municipal budget that defines the percentage of the resources that will be attributed to PB. Interviews conducted in Porto Alegre by Sousa Santos demonstrate that it creates a political atmosphere of competition between the Chamber of Deputies and the PB, as the first perceives it’s being stripped of its jurisdictional assignments. The other element derives from the perception of destitution and has a political nature: deputies elected to represent the population at the municipal legislative power level would not risk a public relations embarrassment by turning down a proposal made via PB, even if there are disagreements or that the legislative body has the formal and legal prerogative for budget approval. This could be the reason why, in New York City, the City Council is itself responsible for assigning the projects that get appointed as candidates for Vote Week.

The articulation between civil society and the State can have different forms depending on political context. Democratic modes of participation can be of separation, addition, confrontation, active resistance, or passive resistance in relation to the government. Porto Alegre’s PB showcases a relation of addition. Brazil is historically marked by a domination of the State over the population, but it has had a different path towards building citizenship when compared to the North American countries. Those differences relate mainly to historical struggles and access to political, civil, and social rights. In the US, the State has a different role in the everyday life of citizens.

The main effect of this difference is that participatory processes tend to be led by individual actors, activist groups, and NGOs such as foundations and research institutions. PB inaugurates a new form of State regulation, in which it articulates and coordinates private sectors of society, who are in fact responsible for defining the program and the rules for the investments. In State-led urban plans, what is at stake is the reaffirmation of the State at the municipal level, of the local government as a regulator and distributor of wealth. The State’s role is to mediate the legitimacy of social and economic welfare, security, and social identity as it defines the criteria for the distribution of resources and the characterization of investment priorities.

Participatory processes that are not limited to election voting represent a radicalization of democracy by being an instrument to promote social justice. In that sense, participatory budgeting programs break new grounds on policy making processes. They mediate the relationship between local scale communities and global financial institutions. While in Latin-America participatory budgeting processes focus on the precarious working class that lack basic services and live mainly in the outskirts of large cities, in the United States and Europe they target groups of immigrants and other minorities, but also attract the presence of the middle class, which is a major consumer of public services.

Democracy, as a tool for social justice, is considered to be a political condition for cities to be funded by international financial institutions such as the World Bank. It is problematic, though, not to take the neoliberal condition of contemporary forms of State into consideration when granting them the resources to reorganize the everyday lives of underprivileged groups. There are relevant sociological differences between State-led strategies and tactical possibilities of engaging in democratic processes of production of urban space.

In the next piece, we discuss the example of participatory budgeting in New York City. Read the second piece here.

[1] Here we paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, who created this thought in an article titled, “The Answer to the Crisis in Democracy Is More Democracy.” The Atlantic. November 26, 2013.

[2] Harvey, David. “The Urban Process Under Capitalism: A Framework for Analysis.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2 (1), 1978, p. 113.

[3] The new Brazilian Constitution had been just declared in 1988, and it is still considered to be a socially progressive document, although it carries inherent contradictions by trying to separate the design of its democratic institutions from ideological politics (Reich, 1998).

[4] In Brazil, the PB represents between 2 and 10% of the total city budget from the previous year. It varies according to municipal regulations. In comparison, in Europe, the PB process is attributed to less than 1% of the municipal budget. The town of Mundo Novo, Brazil, has 100% of its budget subjected to public discussion via PB, including the Mayor’s salary. It is the most “advanced” example of participatory budgeting, but it is important to highlight that it has a population of 16,000 and all the decisions are made in open town meetings (UN Habitat, 2004).

Andrea Marpillero-Colomina is a spatial policy scholar. She researches the intersections of infrastructure, policy, and place. Her passion is figuring out how cities can work and feel better for people, by advancing equity, supporting anti-racist practices, honoring history, constructing sustainable infrastructure, and creating healthy and beautiful public space. Her work has taken her to three continents and across the US. She has taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, and been awarded course development funding by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She holds a PhD in Urban and Public Policy from The New School. She lives and loves in Brooklyn, NY.

Laura Castro is an Architect and Urban Planner, and Ph.D. Candidate at the Architecture School of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. She is a scholar at The New School for Social Research, the Urban Systems Lab, and the Cosmopolis Research Group. She has continuous experience as a Professor of History of Art, Architecture and Urbanism, Theory of Architecture, Aesthetics (Philosophy of Art), and Design Studio at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais. Her doctorate research focuses on everyday urban life, considering the materiality of Architecture as support for subjective narratives and political engagement


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Urban Systems Lab

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Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities.


Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities.


Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

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