What do you want in your neighbourhood?
A bike rack at the Crombie Park Apartments near St. Lawrence Market was birthed by a radical democratic reform from Brazil, which birthed a fight against authoritarian uses of taxpayer money and a movement towards self-rule.
The anecdote may seem minuscule, that a bike rack is for the people and by the people living in a Toronto Community Housing apartment building.
But it’s part of a people-powered quasi-political movement in 1,500 cities around the world, known as participatory budgeting.
Toronto became one of North America’s earliest adopters of participatory budgeting when our community housing complexes began proposing, campaigning, and voting for small-scale building amenities in 2003.
First launched in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the doctrine of participatory budgeting is this: if a government or a public housing authority is spending money in your community, then your community should choose exactly how that money is spent.
Most examples of participatory budgeting, from New York to Tokyo, control less than one per cent of municipal budgets, deciding on funding a seating area for seniors or replacing bathroom doors at schools.
Toronto’s own democratic micro-revolution is now taking to the streets.
The low-income neighbourhoods of Rustic and Oakridge, as well as the entire Ward 33, Don Valley East, have already mandated lampposts, gazebos, and a fitness park be constructed as part of the city’s three-year participatory budgeting pilot project.
As in any (micro) revolution, Toronto’s progress has been plagued by lack of funding, lack of confidence in the system, and conflicting visions for the future.
How does participatory budgeting—and to a larger extent, participatory democracy—work? And, more importantly, does it?
After erecting Toronto’s most democratic bike rack, some cynics could be forgiven for asking, “So what?”
The success of putting public money in the hands of a neighbourhood can be measured in the problems it highlights, according to David Beasley, a spokesperson for the Participatory Budgeting Project, which has offices in New York, Chicago, and Oakland, California.
Beasley said after participatory budgeting groups in New York routinely voted to repair their school’s washroom doors, the city government took notice and doubled the department of education’s repair budget.
Politicians would have otherwise not known, or been compelled, to fix the problem, Beasley said.
City Councillor Shelley Carroll thinks it’s the type of problem-solving Toronto can learn from.
She believes if enough people come to participatory budgeting meetings, like the ones happening in Ward 33, which she represents, then other city councillors will hop on board.
Carroll says that’s what’s happening in New York right now, and it’s part of the reason the Big Apple has the largest participatory budgeting project in North America, with $25 million being managed by over 18,000 residents.
New York is well on track to have a city-wide participatory budgeting process.
A Cautionary Tale
Before Chicago’s seminal project, before New York’s massive adoption, there was the Toronto Community Housing’s participatory budgeting process.
Pioneering this level of people power in North America gave seniors the agency to choose seating areas and treadmills for their buildings, and families voted to refurbish common rooms.
Tenants all over town took the Toronto Community Housing’s “nice to haves” budget and spent it on gardens or key fob access for their homes.
But public housing in Toronto is facing a major funding shortfall, according a Toronto Community Housing spokesperson.
Even though tenants will have $4.2 million at their disposal for building improvements in 2016, that number has dropped by the millions compared to 2015.
Further discouraging faith in the system was Toronto Community Housing changing projects the tenants had mandated with a vote after the fact, according to Carroll.
The Day of Action
A small but packed room in the Fairview Library was the staging ground for Ward 33’s planned vote on how the $250,000 allotted to their part of town should be put to use.
Participants at the brainstorming meeting expressed a mix of excitement and skepticism. One attendee said participatory budgeting in Toronto was “too good to be true.”
Community library boxes on front lawns for children, concrete ping pong tables, and green spaces were all suggested ahead of voting day on December 1.
This community went through their first participatory budget cycle in 2015, democratically appropriating $135,000 of their ward’s money for projects that might be built by 2017—the final year of the pilot project.
Carroll told Torontoist that city staff unilaterally put off the construction start date of projects after residents voted, in 2015, for building to begin as soon as possible.
The issue was corrected, she said, but she stressed that City Hall employees were under-trained on participatory budgeting and weren’t prepared to deliver neighbourhood projects on time.
All of the neighbourhood projects for this year’s participatory budget will be handled by a steering committee largely made up of local community and health centre employees who determine the feasibility and cost of each idea in conjunction with City Hall.
Rich Whate from the city manager’s office facilitated the meeting and explained turnout was lowest during these brainstorming meetings and highest at the voting stage.
Voting in this pilot project is open to everyone living in Ward 33, Rustic, and Oakridge who is 14 years old and older, citizen or non-citizen, making it (probably) the most accessible form of democracy in Canada.
Whate noted lessons learned from the 2015 exercise [PDF], like enabling online idea submission and increasing the pot of money.
But Councillor Shelley Carroll was frustrated with the sidelining of residents championing project ideas in favour of saving time.
Carroll warned that meeting turnout would suffer if the feature of individuals campaigning for a project they proposed was abandoned entirely.
Both Whate and Carroll emphasized the neighbourhoods’ needs to see what they voted for completed before the pilot project was over.
Finished products are participatory budgeting’s main measure of success and the only incentive for these communities to have confidence in the system.
The language in the third last paragraph has been updated to accurately reflect the councillor’s statements on meeting turnout. We regret the error, which was introduced in editing.