Together, Apart: Reengineering Democracy For These Socially Distanced Times
To understand how one iteration of participative democracy can work, let’s examine PBNYC, New York City’s Participatory Budgeting process. (We acknowledge that in the context of U.S. policymaking, New York is an outlier: It is by far the most populous city, with 8.6 million residents, and comprised of five counties spread over a dozen landmasses. New York City has more than double the number of people of the U.S.’s next most populated city — Los Angeles; population 3.99 million — and a larger population than twenty-four U.S. states.) In November 2018, voters in New York approved the creation of a Civic Engagement Commission, charged with expanding participatory budgeting citywide to all fifty-one council districts and with developing civic engagement initiatives in collaboration with community-based organizations and civic leaders beyond the community board.
As a tool, participatory budgeting (PB) only managed to attract institutional attention after having become internationally renowned, and gaining legitimacy and prestige through international forums in the early 2000s. Basically, legitimation from international financial actors were determinant for this model to be made known in developed countries even after substantial success in the so-called global south. Long after implementation in cities in Latin America and Africa, the European Union finally adopted the model with a considerable restriction of city budgets allocated to PB, but even this effort limits the amount allocated to an average of 2%, instead of the average of 10% in Brazil (PB’s birthplace).
In New York, the City budget designated to PB was $35 million for 2020, it represents less than 0,04% of the total City revenue for the 2020 fiscal year presented by Mayor Bill de Blasio, that totals $92,5 billion. Only after the European experience was the method imported by the US. The main difference from the Latin-American model to the North-American is the fact that PB is organized around the legislative power elected council. City representatives can choose to be a part of the PB program and then they set an arbitrary part of their capital discretionary funds to it. Community members- have their participation limited to voting during a nine-day Vote Week, according to their districts, for pre-selected physical infrastructure projects (New York City Council, 2020).
This fact amplifies and lends validity to political and economic arguments regarding the disenfranchisement of urbanites in the U.S. today. It is clear that this mechanism could be much more broadly implemented, and become a significant tool of City practices for civic engagement in urban collective matters. In its current form, it supports critical analysis arguing that neoliberal States, oriented by private capital interests, can strategically co-opt participatory mechanisms that originally presented local and tactical approaches as an individual media strategy. In that framing, the tactic is not truly participative at all, but a mirage of meaningful civic engagement.
In New York, participatory budgeting is open to all residents age 11 and older who live in participating city council districts (until 2021, city council members can opt not to take part). New York’s participatory budgeting process is the largest civic engagement project in the U.S. In 2018, more than 99,250 New York residents participated, developing hundreds of spending proposals and funding 124 community improvement projects for schools, parks, libraries, public housing, streets, and other public spaces; spending over $36.6 million across NYC.
2020 had been anticipated as a big year for participative democracy in New York. After voters overwhelmingly passed a resolution in 2018 calling for the implementation of citywide participatory budgeting and the creation of a Civic Engagement Commission, the initiative was to begin rollout, with a new citywide participatory budgeting program in place, by July 1st 2020. But COVID-19 has brought significant challenges to participatory budgeting, which in past cycles has centered its approach through in-person organizational meetings.
On March 16, 2020, the NYC Council canceled the participatory budgeting process for the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic. Now financial straits are dire as a result of municipal tax revenue loss due to COVID. Some City lawmakers and advocates anticipate that in the immediate future the program will be severely limited by the pandemic and its multifaceted fallout. The coronavirus has decimated New York’s economy and the City faces an anticipated $7.4 billion tax revenue loss by the end of fiscal year 2021. The risk of losing funding for outreach by community partners is particularly important from a racial and economic justice perspective. Without it, the usual voices are more likely to dominate — leading us away from equitable democratic outcomes.
NYC Council Member Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn-39) who first proposed the idea for the civic engagement commission, proposed an alternative program that can use expense and operational funds, instead of capital funds, to get around anticipated budget constraints. In his council district, he has overseen a PB program that distributes between $1–1.5 million in capital funds and a smaller pot of $50,000 in expense monies; this has funded projects as diverse as a sewing circle for domestic violence survivors and a study on the effects of climate change on bats in Prospect Park. Given the current challenges, he has called for “A program that gives New Yorkers an opportunity to participate in the COVID recovery by coming up with some creative community-sourced ideas, developing them, and then getting to vote on some of them… I think amongst many other problems that we have right now, disengagement from democratic decision-making is definitely one of them.”
Lander believes this kind of participatory engagement would also give some degree of control back to New Yorkers at a time when so much of civic life has been disrupted by the pandemic.
Flexibility and capacity to change is a key ingredient to a functional participative democracy. Instead of the pandemic being a hindrance to effective collective action, new realities like COVID can create new pathways for community-led initiatives that respond to current needs. In neighborhoods where, for example, more people must go to work in person, or there is less green space, or more people experience higher food insecurity, priorities for how to spend public monies differ greatly. It should be up to each community to self-identify their most urgent priorities and generate ideas about how to effectively address their needs.
Much smaller municipalities have also explored participative strategies. Since 2017, Niagara Falls, NY (population 48,000) has used a participatory budgeting process to allocate federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, the second municipality nationwide to allocate funding this way. Through this initiative, spearheaded by the city council and local community advocates, Niagara Falls residents directly plan projects, and all residents aged 14 and up can vote to decide how to spend federally allocated public dollars.
In 2019, residents voted to spend $360K in CDBG monies to improve a major park and renovate the Niagara Falls City Market. The year prior, residents voted to create a community center, demolish run-down houses, and assist homeowners with exterior upgrades. In all projects, the focus is on “placemaking,” or building a stronger connection between people and public space in the interest of community building. Niagara Falls stands out because the participatory process here facilitates direct civic engagement in determining how to spend federal grant dollars that have been awarded to the city; with no limitations on the types of projects funded other than they meet CDBG guidelines. The scale of Niagara Falls’ projects makes them comparable to neighborhood or district projects in larger, denser cities.
Much of contemporary democracy is dependent on the political will of those in power. This dynamic can make implementing new or controversial ideas risky or untenable, especially when elected officials seem beholden to only some of their constituents or interested solely in retaining their own power.
Creating accessible, egalitarian forums for civic engagement is a crucial first step. But cities can go further by investing in sustained meaningful dialogue as part of the process of implementing policy-driven change to shared public resources and places. Allocating funding and time for participation helps assure all stakeholders that they will benefit from the proposed or planned change. When community members are involved from the start in a process that will transform a shared good, resilience and collaboration is greatly enhanced. If community members are excluded, uncertainty about changes often creates conflict among cultural groups and lasting distrust.
To reduce the potential for conflict in shared public resources, cities must create a new paradigm of multilateral engagement, wherein stakeholders feel they are meaningfully and consistently engaged in public decision-making, rather than just being called upon — or worse, demanding to be heard — only after decisions that affect their lives have already been implemented. The public demand for the creation of bodies like New York’s Civic Engagement Commission underscores how highly valued municipally sanctioned participative democracy is today.
In cities across the world, stakeholders have recognized the limitations of modern representative democracy and are demanding a better approach. By facilitating direct power in decision-making, cities can spatially, socially, economically, and politically benefit from innovations led by their own residents. Local communities can do a better job of navigating cultural tensions and spatial challenges in their own neighborhoods than can the bureaucracy of traditional top-down city government agencies and actors. By establishing the basic ingredients necessary for meaningful inclusion and leadership in public processes, cities can reduce the potential for conflict in contested public space and resources. Removing barriers to participation is key to creating more equitable communities.
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