Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (left) has embraced a participatory budgeting program begun by his predecessor that lets young people between the age of 12 and 25 decide how to spend $1 million a year. Mayor's Office Photo by Isabel Leon

City residents aged 12 to 25 divvy up $1 million in capital improvements annually.

BOSTON, United States—What would happen if you took a million dollars from your city’s budget and gave it to young people to decide where to spend it?

Boston is finding out. In a pioneering experiment in “participatory budgeting,” city residents aged 12 to 25 are invited to come up with ideas for where to spend capital dollars and to vote on those ideas. The second round of $1 million to be spent this way has just been completed.

The process is called “Youth Lead the Change.” It was inaugurated in 2014 by Thomas Menino, Boston’s mayor of 21 years, and has been continued by his successor, Martin J. Walsh. It’s run by Boston’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment and supervised by a Mayor’s Youth Council of 26 community and youth-serving organizations. The effort enjoys broad popularity, suggesting it could become a long-term fixture of the city’s governance.

Why is Boston doing this? Outreach to youth, seeing their views and engaging them in municipal issues was a significant part of Menino’s legacy. And it’s a torch now picked up by Walsh, says Shari Davis, executive director of the city’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment. The goal, she says, is not just to help youth learn about city departments, but also to “use the city as a civic engagement classroom—letting a young person not only dream the city they’d like but to navigate the processes to get there.”

Young people who’ve been involved with the program are enthusiastic about it. As one student noted at a recent briefing session at Boston City Hall: “The process affects where I live. And with the program, I got to have a hand in decisions. I helped to change my city.”  Another said: “Now I know, to a degree, how government works—how many steps it takes to get something built.”

And what kind of capital spending projects do the youth select? Leading the list are state-of-the-art makeovers of city parks and gyms. Modern electronic tools rate high—they wanted Chromebook laptops for high schoolers, broadened Wi-Fi access at schools and community centers, and places to charge their cell phones. Other projects include security cameras, bike sharing, and art walls where youthful artists can express themselves.

The Boston effort is built on other initiatives around the world that aim to give citizens a more direct say in how their taxes are spent. The participatory budgeting movement began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since expanded to more than 1,500 localities worldwide—Paris, for example, invites all citizens annually to allocate €75 million ($US85 million) for a broad variety of projects. But Boston is unusual for its specific focus on youth. Last year, the city’s program received recognition as one of the 15 top city innovations worldwide by the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation. (Disclosure: We were members of the technical committee that selected Boston and other honorees.)

A few weeks ago, we joined delegations from Guangzhou, China and Eskişehir, Turkey for a trip to Boston to see how the program works. The study tour was organized by the Guangzhou Institute for Urban Innovation, as part of a city learning exercise for the cities recognized through the Guangzhou award program. (Read more on the Guangzhou study tours here.)

The Boston process

Listening to the Boston project managers, it’s immediately clear the youth participatory budgeting project goes far beyond casual selection of a few infrastructure projects, printing up ballots and then announcing results of the most popular. The process begins with an array of outreach efforts to identify projects young people would like to see the city put its construction dollars behind. Youth are invited to submit ideas through a website, through social media, and in quick face-to-face conversations with project leaders at transit stops.

Then the city sponsors go a step farther with one-hour sessions for groups of young people, featuring free pizza and music. The young people watch a slideshow on the city and the $1 million challenge and then break into small groups to discuss needs and possibilities in their neighborhoods.

Some of the young people involved with Boston’s ‘Youth Lead the Change’ program (from left to right): Shihua Wu, Jessica Hernandez, John Fiumara, Mahlet Shiferaw, Fiona Weir, Stephen Lafune. (Neal Peirce)

The result of all this outreach is lots of ideas proposed—about 2,000 in the most recent round.  The next challenge is to reduce the number of candidate projects to about 20. Forty young people volunteer for the task then meet weekly for ten weeks to whittle down the list based on the quality of the ideas and the potential impact they’d make on their communities. In the process, they also go out to sites, take photos and examine facilities needing to be improved or renovated.

Then comes the balloting, and it’s serious business: The projects that win will be on a sure track to funding. Only Bostonians aged 12 to 25 are eligible to participate. Ballots are widely distributed through schools and youth centers across the city. This year, an online voting system was implemented. In 2014, 1,531 votes were cast; this year the figure rose to 2,597.

Strategy of inclusion

Part of the success is clearly symbolic—$1 million is just a tiny slice of Boston’s roughly $100 million capital budget. But the program is not just about money. It’s about a city showing respect for and interest in its young people. The city’s outreach, especially to underprivileged youth, goes beyond model civic practice. Quite consciously, it focuses on social outreach in a city that, like many others in today’s world, must deal with deep income, ethnic and language differences.

Boston is expanding its frontiers for youth participation, notes Davis, “by meeting young people where they are, building relationships, and allowing them to be the experts that we know they are in spaces where they are safe and comfortable.”

The project managers have sought to include students in every school in the city—a goal not yet quite achieved. They’re also reaching out to non-English speakers. A video series has been initiated to chronicle the project’s progress from the point of view of young people, including versions in such tongues as Haitian Creole and Cape Verdean Creole.

Francesco Tena, manager of the Mayor’s Youth Council, notes that the project has been designed to reach “the most disconnected students, not just those who already know how to navigate the resources of the city.” The first year of engagement, he says, focused on predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The second year those targets remained but an expanded effort was made to reach youth involved with the courts, lesbian and gay populations, unaccompanied or homeless youth, and undocumented residents.

A companion strategy has been to ask the young people who have been most heavily involved with the project for the longest time to consider which of their peers are not yet at the table, and the reasons they might be excluded.

Early results

A visit to the newly upgraded playground for children and youth at the Paris Street Park and American Legion Playground in a working-class East Boston neighborhood provides a vibrant illustration of results the program has already registered. With the $100,000 of improvements completed, the playground area has an array of the most modern, bouncy playground equipment, a soft-tread surface to cushion spills, and two special requests of teenagers—fountains to refill water bottles and cell phone chargers. The day we visited, the playground was packed with families, indicating strong neighborhood acceptance and popularity.

Renovations of the Paris Street Park include new playground equipment and two things teenagers asked for: fountains to refill water bottles and cell phone chargers. (Neal Peirce)

By contrast, another upgrade the youth voted for in historic Franklin Park beside the Dorchester neighborhood has yet to be completed. The vision was for a state-of-the-art exercise site with equipment for park-goers of all ages. However, Boston’s archeologist indicated the site could hold evidence of human use from 8,000 years ago. A dig has not borne out that theory, but the youth have been exposed to the reality of city planning: Specific sites may have deep history that deserves respect; legitimate delays may occur; progress and enjoyment of the park and its playgrounds may not come until the youth who selected it reach adulthood.

Whatever the impediments, students who took an active part in conceptualizing and planning the Boston program spoke enthusiastically about it at a briefing session at City Hall. Later, we asked two of those students, both 17 and entering their last year of high school, to expand on their experience.

Jessica Hernandez of Boston Latin School said: “I was part of the Steering Committee which created the rules, such as what ages would be able to vote, and the overall foundations of participatory budgeting. I have lived in Boston all my life. It is truly my home and a place I am proud of. Having the opportunity to change it for the better and for future generations is one that I could not pass up. This process is proof that anyone can make a change in their community, no matter their age, background, or anything else that may seem like an obstacle.”

John Fiumara of Catholic Memorial High School said: “I got to interact with many youth in Boston and got to hear about many amazing ideas to improve the city. I also now get to follow projects that I oversaw become real and get built. That's an amazing feeling and I want more youth around Boston to feel it.”

Francesco Tena, the Youth Council manager, does acknowledge that when the program was first announced, “There was a lot of skepticism—‘What, let kids spend $1 million?’” But now, he says, “we’re getting credit as people see things actually being made with this money.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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