Last year, City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito as good as handed her constituents $1.5 million to distribute to improvement projects around their neighborhoods. After the success of the so-called participatory budgeting process, Mark-Viverito is bringing the program back and open to proposals.
On Tuesday, she took suggestions for where to allocate her budget at the Frederick Douglass Houses, between 100th and 104th streets on the Upper West Side, from residents of the public housing complex. Repairing the elevators, fixing cracks in the sidewalks, installing brighter lights, and getting rid of rats and raccoons were at the top of the list.
Mark-Viverito, who represents Manhattan Valley, East Harlem, and the South Bronx, was one of four council members to establish a participatory budgeting program last year. “I am so proud that we are doing this in our district,” Mark-Viverito said to the group of 50.
She touted the success of last year’s process, in which $1.54 million was voted to fund the installation of security cameras in several housing developments and a new Meals on Wheels van. A third of the money went toward enhanced playground equipment such as climbing apparatuses, castles, and bridges for the Douglass Houses as well as the Millbrook Houses in the Bronx.
Her constituents were excited to get back into the democratic process, listing off a myriad of needs. “We have a lot of elderly people here, a lot of disabled people here and there are not enough ramps,” Tyree Mims said. Mims lives in the Douglass Houses with his grandmother, who is in a wheelchair.
When elevators aren’t working, he said, the people who need them “have to sit outside for hours at a time, which is unacceptable.”
Douglass resident Sharon Johnson said she would love to see the money poured into beautification and upkeep of the projects. “They could also expand on the children’s area,” she said.
Last year, Stefan Poaches, 27, pitched the idea to repair a public basketball court in his neighborhood, making the shortlist of projects. Though it was ultimately not picked to receive funding, he was back at the Douglass Houses on Tuesday with more ideas. “I think it was a great process because I felt like my voice was heard,” Poaches said. A basketball coach at a Bronx public school, he said he wants to make education the center of his proposal this year.
Residents were energized by Mark-Viverito’s support for their ideas, cheering as attendees presented their proposals to the entire group at the end of the meeting.
Started in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, participatory budgeting has since increased in popularity around the world. More recently, Chicago and New York have adopted the process. Eight council members will let their district members partake in participatory budgeting this year, but Mark-Viverito is still the only Manhattan or Bronx member of the council participating.
At a talk hosted by Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation on Tuesday afternoon, City Council member Brad Lander of Brooklyn described the success of his participatory budgeting efforts last year and his optimism for the program in the future.
“It’s not a beauty pageant or a reality show but an ongoing process that happens year after year,” Lander said.
One of the biggest successes of participatory budgeting, Lander said, was that “people of color, speakers of languages other than English were overrepresented in the voting” compared to other elections. That was certainly true at Mark-Viverito’s meeting, at which a group of participants brainstormed solely in Spanish.
“People were really thoughtful stewards of the public realm,” voting for proposals that didn’t directly impact them, Lander said.
While a holdup in City Council has delayed the rollout of many of the projects funded by last year’s budgeting, attendees at Mark-Viverito’s meeting were not deterred. Many of them signed up to be involved further as budget delegates at future meetings.
Casey Tolan contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Stefan Poaches’ basketball court project received funding last year. In fact, it was one of the finalists, but did not receive funding. Spectator regrets the error.