According to New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, NYC Council is kicking off “the largest demonstration of grassroots democracy in North America” this summer. He’s referring to the Council’s Participatory Budgeting (PB) program, through which community members can vote on how to spend $1,000,000 from the budget of participating Council Districts. Voting for Cycle 7 of PBNYC wrapped up just a few months ago, and now residents can begin posting their ideas for Cycle 8 online.
To do so, residents can drop pins on this map to pitch project ideas in one of 12 categories, including things like housing and transit. For instance, Padric Gleason from Astoria, Queens proposed the idea of installing solar panels and a rainwater collection system on the roof of PS 17 Henry David Thoreau, in honor of Thoreau’s love of nature.
During voting for Cycle 7, a number of residents expressed interest in learning about the impact of participatory budgeting on their communities. In response, the nonprofit organization Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) developed another interactive map to display data on PB projects gathered through the NYC Data Portal.
On the same website, projects are also sorted according their category, the number of votes received, the cost, and the agency that has undertook it (or would have, had the project won the vote).
Each graph provides a different set of insights into the priorities of voters. For instance, it’s clear that libraries and schools are a top priority for participants in PB, and they appear to be most enthusiastic about projects in the $200k-299k range.
Earlier this year, PBP received both the Mayor’s Civics Award and the Open Data Award in the first annual NYC Open Data Project Gallery Contest. Upon receiving these awards, Hadassah Damien, the Director of Data & Technology for PBP said, “New York City residents decide together and vote on how to spend $30 million taxpayer dollars on community projects in PBNYC — of course they want to know how those projects are coming along!”
This year, 31 council districts from across all five boroughs have signed up to participate in Cycle 8. That means $31 million of New York City’s $89 billion budget — roughly 0.035% — will be put to a direct vote. In context, the sum is paltry, but evidence suggests that participatory budgeting operates best at a small, local level. In a study of Porto Alegre, a Brazilian city which is often heralded as the first to enact participatory budgeting, researchers at the World Resources Institute found that PB proved “less effective” with larger-scale projects, due to their complexity. Overall, PB was better suited to “mobiliz[e] popular demands around discrete, small-scale infrastructure about which neighborhood residents could more or less agree.”
It’s possible that the same would be true for New York City, and that it would be better for PBNYC to remain small-scale. It’s important to note, though, that the value of PB is not proportional to its allotted budget. PB programs like New York City’s provide valuable information about the priorities of residents, as well as a platform for a dialogue between residents and city government. In particular, PBNYC’s and PBP's maps serve to foster data literacy and empower residents to become active members of their community through new digital means.