Participatory budgeting (PB) is a process in which community members design and vote on projects to receive public funding. It is a tool for social justice and community empowerment that has gained momentum in Seattle following the protests to defend Black lives ignited by the murder of George Floyd. Although PB has been used to fund street improvement and park projects in Seattle since 2017, it is still unfamiliar to Seattle’s general population. Seattle has earmarked $30 million for PB in its 2021 budget, marking a dramatic increase from $2 and $3 million in funding in previous years. Inspired by local activists and my policy coursework at SMEA, I set out to build a basic understanding of connections between environmental justice (EJ) and PB. I hope the following overview provides a useful starting point for others who share my conviction that antiracist and broadly pro-equity work is both an urgent ethical imperative and an innate component of effective environmentalism.
Where did participatory budgeting come from?
I learned from Everyone Counts: Could “Participatory Budgeting” Save Democracy? that PB began in Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil. Years of preferential infrastructure development in wealthy communities had come at the expense of the majority, creating glaring inequity. In 1989, four years after the fall of a nearly two decade military rule, the newly in power socialist Workers’ Party pioneered PB to address these issues. Within eight years of Porto Alegre’s use of PB, access to the city’s sewage system increased from less than fifty percent to eighty-five, and enrollment in primary and secondary education doubled.
The early success and obvious appeal of participatory budgeting quickly attracted national and international attention amongst community activists and leaders. The first recorded use in the United States is traced to Chicago City Council alderman Joe Moore. The residents of Moore’s district (the 49th Ward, one of the most diverse in Chicago) were losing confidence in his ability to represent their interests, and Moore had recently nearly lost re-election. When he first heard about PB, he believed that it could help him empower and reconnect with his constituents.
In 2009, the premier North American PB advocacy group, an NGO called the Participatory Budgeting Project, helped Moore allot his annual discretionary funding of $1.3 million to PB. Public response was outstanding. Ten years later, the 49th Ward still uses PB and its widespread approval has persisted. Moore’s re-elections in 2011 and 2015 is a testament to this fact. PB’s popularity is further underscored by Moore’s election loss in 2019 to current incumbent Maria Hadden, herself a community activist and founding board member of the Participatory Budgeting Project.
How does participatory budgeting work?
The model of PB is adaptable to different scales and settings, from high schools to city governments, but the paradigm itself is straightforward. In the framework of the Participatory Budgeting Project, the PB cycle begins with a steering committee composed of community leaders and stakeholders. The steering committee creates a PB planning process, including timeline, funding, and community outreach. Participants meet in person or online to suggest and workshop ideas for potential PB projects. This allows for project ideas to come directly from community needs and integrates their knowledge and lived experiences into policy and planning. Volunteers create formal proposals from the ideas generated in the community meetings. The community then votes on the proposals and winning projects receive funding. From there, results are evaluated for community benefit and the process repeats. Many communities in North America interested in implementing PB enlist the Participatory Budgeting Project for more in-depth advice on planning and outreach, but the basic process remains unchanged.
How can participatory budgeting address environmental justice?
Environmental justice, or EJ, is the concept that no group should be exposed to a disproportionate share of environmental hazards, and that equity can only be achieved by granting people power to participate in decision-making as it pertains to their environment. This can be connected to exposure to toxins or differences in ecological amenities, such as green space.
Last September, University of Washington professor Christopher Schell, along with colleagues like SMEA’s Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, published a paper in Science establishing a relationship between systemic racism in urban settings, specifically via the practice of redlining, and different ecological processes. The authors identified how wealthier and whiter neighborhoods have more biological diversity and access to green space, while historically redlined Black neighborhoods have less biological diversity and experience greater exposure to pest-borne illness and other health hazards.
In short, Dr. Schell’s analysis shows us how environmental racism works. While his research is not about Seattle specifically, we have a legacy of segregation during which Seattle’s Black residents were restricted to the Central District and South End. The city has attempted to incorporate environmental justice considerations into their PB since 2018 by highlighting and setting aside specific funding for projects with equity benefits. The scale of the funded projects, however, was clearly not enough to address far-reaching inequity; Seattle’s PB has focused primarily on small but significant improvements to specific parks and crosswalks.
Prominent organizations Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now are at the forefront of Seattle’s push for PB. They believe that dramatically increased PB funding is needed to address Seattle’s inequity, and that funded projects must be chosen and planned by the communities most affected by inequity. More broadly, many in these groups believe that the city is unable to address entrenched racist dynamics within Seattle without grassroots BIPOC leadership, as the government is itself a product and perpetuator of inequity.
I commend our local government’s small scale PB initiatives and believe that they are beneficial. Even so, Decriminalize Seattle and Equity Now make a strong point that is consistent with criticisms of PB broadly: that PB is highly susceptible to overrepresentation of affluent, predominantly white groups unless specific care is taken to ensure that underrepresented groups are prioritized at every level of implementation and management. This dynamic can further exacerbate the very inequities that the Workers’ Party was aiming to correct.
Everyone Counts provides an example in which early PB in New York failed to prioritize housing improvements and instead funded a dog park. The following year, racial and economic equity advocates refined their strategy and campaigned successfully for the housing improvements. As this example demonstrates, PB is best undertaken in partnership with local coalitions grounded in BIPOC and working class communities. Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now have positioned themselves to fill that critical role by leading the charge for increased and more equitable PB, and they are partnering with the Participatory Budgeting Project for advising on their 2021 PB plan.
How does centering equity in participatory budgeting contribute to environmental justice?
PB can offer engagement opportunities to groups whose perspectives and lived experience are fundamental to EJ, but who are underrepresented in or explicitly excluded from conventional avenues of decision-making. This includes BIPOC communities, the working class, immigrant communities, teenagers, and people with criminal records. To illustrate this point, consider the potential environmental benefits of youth engagement in PB.
PB is open to community members below the age of majority, in some instances as young as fourteen. It is becoming increasingly clear that young people consider themselves major stakeholders in the fight for climate justice with insufficient outlets to shape environmental policy for which they will ultimately bear disproportionate cost. Seattle’s Jamie Margolin, for example, was among the plaintiffs in a suit against the state of Washington alleging that government inaction on climate change is a violation of their generation’s constitutional rights.
The commonly cited PB benefits of increased sense of community, civic engagement, and personal empowerment are particularly valuable in teens. Furthermore, young people’s established greater concern about environmental issues (a trend that is even more pronounced among young people of color), suggests that youth participation in PB will likely increase overall prioritization of environmental issues.
Seattle antiracist activists and government both appear to believe that PB provides an opportunity to begin correcting inequity in Seattle. If Seattle’s PB falls prey to overrepresentation by the white and affluent, it will create consequences that are neither equitable nor environmentally sustainable. But if equity is centered at all stages of the PB process, PB outcomes will have positive implications for the environment.
* Contact Currents editor-in-chief James Lee at email@example.com for access to:
Schell, C. J., Dyson, K., Fuentes, T. L., Roches, S. D., Harris, N. C., Miller, D. S., Woelfle-Erskine, C. A., & Lambert, M. R. (2020). The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments. Science, 369(6510). doi: 10.1126/science.aay4497