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Climate resilience as Participatory Budgeting

by Anjali Mehta

What it is: Participatory budgeting, or PB, is a simple but transformational citizen engagement process where community members decide how a portion of a public budget is spent. The typical PB process is relatively straightforward:

  • First, a segment of a municipal, institutional, or school-district budget is allocated for PB. Communities generally earmark between 1-15% of an annual budget, or an amount substantial enough that community members are incentivized to participate and will be able to experience material differences from the process (in Paris, France, for instance, the mayor allocates 5% of her annual budget, or 100 million euros, towards PB). In the United States, the PB budget is generally taken out of capital discretionary funds or funds that aren’t already committed to everyday expenses and can be used at the discretion of public officials, school administrators, etc. (Ideally, though, communities will move towards participatory budgeting processes that give community members the opportunity to weigh in on operating budgets, too.)
  • Next, the community helps to design an inclusive PB process. Through community meetings and online platforms, people brainstorm projects that they’d like to see funded. It’s an opportunity for collective radical imagination.
  • Then, volunteers (and/or public officials) help to calculate estimated project costs and flush out ideas into full project proposals. After community members get the opportunity to compare potential projects, the list is narrowed down.
  • Finally, community members vote on their favorite projects and the projects with the most votes are funded and brought to life. The projects that don’t get funded still serve as an important source of feedback for public officials or administrators.
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Some additional context: The concept emerged in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 in a moment when the city was growing quickly and struggling to meet the basic needs of its residents. The experiment proved to be hugely successful. A decade later, infant mortality had declined by 33%, the number of schools had quadrupled, health budgets had tripled, and resources for basic infrastructure, like roads and sewer and water connections, flowed into the poorest neighborhoods. Since then, more than 7,000 cities around the world, including 29 in the United States, have adopted a participatory budgeting process. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated by residents through a community decision-making process. The movement is growing, and for good reason.

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I think this is the greatest wave of democracy to come into the United States. Carmen Piñeiro, community organizer (source)

Why it’s a climate resilience powerhouse:

Strengthening democracy

Though the United States is currently structured as a representative democracy, where elected officials make laws, policies, and other decisions on behalf of their constituents, practices like PB can help move the country towards a direct democracy, where people participate in government in meaningful ways beyond just voting in elections every couple of years. PB gives the people an opportunity to meaningfully engage in democratic decision making processes, develop and vote on solutions to the problems that they’re experiencing, and have a say in how their tax dollars are spent.

“I argue that we haven’t actually experienced true participatory democracy in these United States of America just yet. But democracy is a living, breathing thing. And it’s still our birthright.” -community leader and Participatory Budgeting Project Co-Executive Director Shari Davis (source)

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I argue that we haven’t actually experienced true participatory democracy in these United States of America just yet. But democracy is a living, breathing thing. And it’s still our birthright. Shari Davis, community leader and Participatory Budgeting Project Co-Executive Director (source)

When people get to experience democracy working for them, it strengthens trust in and enthusiasm for the democratic process. A Participatory Budgeting Project white paper explains, “People who get engaged in PB tend to stay engaged. The ability to contribute to tangible results through the process can be addictive; knowing that change is possible motivates people to push for more. New leaders emerge through PB and go on to organize other community movements that strengthen the city.” PB participants are more likely to go on to vote in local and national elections, consider going into politics, reach out to public officials, and volunteer in their community. That’s particularly important at a time when fascism is arguably on the rise, public trust in government is at a near historic low (according to a 2022 Pew Research report, just 20% of Americans say they trust the government to do what is right most of the time), frustration with government is high (the same report states that a mere 8% of Americans describe the government as responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans), voter turnout in presidential elections continues to trail behind other countries with democratic traditions (the United States ranks 31 out of 50 when comparing the voting-age population turnout in member countries and candidates of the OECD), and voter turnout in municipal elections remains staggeringly low (fewer than 15% of voting-eligible Americans vote in municipal elections, and in some cities, average turnout is in the single digits).

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Creating more inclusive opportunities for democratic engagement

PB is for everyone, including folks who are often restricted or otherwise prevented from voting, such as youth, non-citizen residents, and formerly incarcerated folks. This is hugely important, not only because all people deserve to weigh in on decisions affecting the communities that they’re a part of, but also because important insights and brilliant solutions are missed when segments of the population are excluded from democratic processes. PB programs often account for this by designing PB processes specifically to center the folks most impacted by voter disenfranchisement and suppression. For instance:

  • In Boston, the City’s Youth Lead the Change program empowers youth (age 12 to 25), and particularly low-income youth, youth of color, and immigrant youth, to allocate one million dollars of the City’s capital budget through a bi-annual, youth-led PB process. City agencies donate
  • In New York City, PBNYC was created with the express intent to involve folks who weren’t already active in politics. As of 2015, four years after PBNYC was launched, nearly a quarter of the city’s PB participants had a barrier to voting in regular elections, whether they were formerly incarcerated, under the age of 18 (kids over the age of 11 can participate in PBNYC), or without US citizenship. An analysis of PBNYC participants found that PB processes more accurately reflected the demographics of their districts than regular elections. In particular, people of color, low-income residents, and residents born outside of the US were better represented.
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Implementing and funding effective climate solutions and other community-driven projects

Particularly as national and international leaders continually fail to act at the speed and scale necessary to ward off extreme climate change scenarios and keep communities safe through escalating disasters, PB programs at the local and regional scale can empower communities to utilize their capital budget to launch projects that will help minimize their environmental impact, keep communities safe amid extreme weather, and bolster recovery efforts during and after disasters. PB programs allow for climate solutions that are more:

  • Effective: As community organizer Carmen Piñeiro said while reflecting on the importance of the community-driven solutions that emerge in PB programs, “Who knows better about their community than the people who live in the community?” Projects that make it through the PB process have been developed and honed by the folks who understand the challenges that their communities are facing firsthand. Projects also tend to be more successful because participants are invested in their success! They shaped these projects themselves, so they tend to stay engaged past funding and implementation stages.
  • Nimble: Because PB programs give community members the opportunity to vocalize their concerns and priorities on a regular basis, and not just while politicians are campaigning, PB can help communities to be responsive and fast-acting in the face of changing conditions.
  • Cost-effective: Because PB participants want to make the most of their allotted budget, they work together to find creative and crafty ways to get results.
  • Supported: Projects that end up receiving PB funding have made it through several rounds of democratic decision making processes. Grievances have been aired and projects have been improved upon. By the time that a project receives funding, it’s clear that most participants agree that it would be an asset to the community.
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As the international story of participatory budgeting shows, American leaders do not need to rely only upon themselves for answers. Nancy H. Kwak, urban historian (source)

So many incredible climate-related projects have already emerged from PB programs around the country. For instance:

  • Since Boston’s Youth Lead the Change was established in 2013, young people have developed and overseen the implementation of countless projects advancing climate resilience, such as urban forests and farms, fans in schools without air conditioning, solar panels on city-owned buildings, more robust recycling programs, reinvestment in parks, water refill stations, solar-powered charging benches, community art murals, and more.
  • In Fresno, California, activists helped secure $37 million of state climate funding to create one of the largest community-based PB projects in the country. The city was allocated about $70 million through the state’s Transformative Climate Communities program, which was designed to invest in the state’s communities most impacted by pollution, but when residents of Southwest Fresno learned that the city intended to pour that entire amount into the city’s downtown, they traveled to Sacramento to advocate for greater autonomy over the funding- and they were successful! Since then, about 125 Fresno residents have developed and approved funding for dozens of projects that will help to mitigate environmental injustice, advance climate resilience, and improve quality of life, including community gardens, more trees, a new community college campus, better sidewalks, building weatherization, a food hub, and more.
  • Detroit SOUP, which is an example of a non-governmental project utilizing PB practices in an effective and inspiring way, has directed microgrants to hundreds of incredible Detroit-based projects, among them, urban farms and community gardens, a mobile tool share, a bus stop bench project, a bicycle workspace, energy democracy and housing justice initiatives, and a whole lot of art.
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Cultivating community connections

When elected representatives, public officials, and community members work alongside one another to develop inclusive PB processes, flesh out project proposals, and hold elections for proposed projects, they deepen their relationships between one another. Elected representatives become more accountable to the people that they serve, and they also become more informed about what their constituents need and desire. Meanwhile, community members forge connections with neighbors and learn more about what’s happening in their neighborhood. Participants also develop a better understanding of the costs and challenges associated with public projects, and they gain empathy for what public officials and elected representatives have to navigate.

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PB is learning democracy by doing democracy. Mike Menser, author and chair of the Participatory Budgeting Project board

The nuance / caveats:

There’s a lot to keep in mind when implementing or improving a PB program. For instance:

  • PB has the potential to be radically inclusive, but it’s not a given. For instance, if the PB process is conducted exclusively in English, it will likely be impossible for a portion of the community to participate. At every stage of PB design and implementation, it’s important to consider how to maximize accessibility for all peoples and how folks most excluded from decision-making spaces can be centered.
  • Many communities that have been most impacted by systemic injustice are bombarded with invitations to “participatory planning” and community engagement processes. PB can feel like an extension of that; another meeting in a string of exhausting, generally fruitless, and sometimes harmful meetings. Particularly in these instances, it’s important to go slow, build trust, form authentic relationships, listen, and allocate proper time and space for healing and relationship repair.
  • It’s also imperative that people witness the fruits of their labor! PB programs need adequate resources both to support the process itself and to implement the projects that people vote on. Without sufficient funding, a PB program may erode because people lose trust and interest in the process, or simply because they don’t know it exists!
  • Participatory budgeting programs will and should evolve over time. Time and funding should be allocated accordingly for participants to regularly assess what’s working and what’s not.
  • Most PB programs in the US use PB for capital expenses, not operating budgets. PB programs therefore typically launch wonderful and needed small-scale projects, but rarely get to the heart of structural issues. There are glimmers of that changing, particularly in the wave of city and school programs that have divested funds from policing and reallocated them towards PB programs (see: Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona and the city of Seattle). Moving towards greater use of PB in operating budgets is important. And, PB is just one of many strategies needed when it comes to strengthening democracy and rectifying centuries of immense harm at the hands of the United States government.
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Research + reflection prompts:

  • Does your city have a participatory budgeting process in place? If so, what stage of the annual PB cycle are they in, and how can you get involved?
  • Take a look at past and proposed budgets for your city or municipality, and particularly the Capital Budget, which typically includes long-term investments in facilities and infrastructure. If budgets are indeed moral documents, what does your city’s budget say about your communities’ values, goals, and priorities? How would you reallocate your municipality’s proposed budget to maximize for resilience, justice, and collective wellbeing?

How to get engaged:

Budget Participation

If your city or district already has a participatory budgeting process in place: That’s amazing! There are myriad ways to get involved, from sharing a new project idea of your own to showing up as an enthusiastic voter. PB processes are often largely run by volunteers, so if you have a passion for facilitation or a background in accounting or developing project proposals, your skills can likely be used.

Create Community Budgets

If your city or district does not yet have a participatory budgeting process in place: Advocate for one. Talk to neighbors about what PB entails, reach out to your elected officials, or start a petition to bring PB to your municipality. If you hold a staff or elected position in local or regional government, consider partnering with the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) to start a PB program from scratch. PBP can help with program design and planning, training, technical assistance, and more. If you’re looking to launch or improve a PB program and you’re craving guidance from folks who have been in your position, check out People Powered’s Rising Stars Mentorship Program, a global program that connects advocates, policymakers, and program managers to on-the-ground PB mentors around the world.

Best Practices

If you’re involved with a group with a budget beyond government spaces: Consider applying PB practices to a portion of the group’s budget. As Shari Davis points out, PB is a tool that can even be brought into the home! Movement groups, extracurricular clubs, nonprofits, and businesses can utilize PB to democratize decision-making, get important feedback, come up with innovative ideas, increase engagement and retention, and demonstrate appreciation. PB is also a fantastic tool for schools, from elementary schools to university. If you’re interested in bringing PB to your school as a student leader, administrator, teacher, or parent, the Participatory Budgeting Project has a great step-by-step guide including lessons, worksheets, and more.

A smattering of resources for continued learning + action:

Short Reads

Guides + Reports

Long Reads



Related Resilience Strategies