Participatory Budgeting and Public Space—Better Together?

19359651805_2fc2a7e10c_zNot only do I get excited about public space and urban design—I’m also a bit of an emerging municipal budget nerd. I volunteer with an organization called Better Budget TO, and earlier this year we released a report with recommendations for the City of Toronto to make our budget process more participatory, visionary, open and evidence-based. We also hosted a day-long event called Better Budget Day at Evergreen Brick Works (a great public space!) in partnership with Evergreen City Works. (You see, public space and public budgets really do go hand in hand.)

We were really happy to see that the City of Toronto undertook a pilot in participatory budgeting  in 2015 in three areas: Ward 33, Oakridge and Rustic. Participatory budgeting is a process where residents direct how a portion of public funds are spent. Projects are proposed by community members and funding is allocated towards the projects that receive the most votes. For more information on the process—check out Participatory Budgeting Project.

Both proposed and chosen participatory budgeting projects often have an urban design element to them. Use of public space—how it’s currently being used and how residents would like to see it be used—is a natural fit with participatory budgeting.

Oakridge and Rustic ere chosen because they are two of the City of Toronto’s 31 identified Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, and Ward 33 was included because the local councillor, Shelley Carroll, has previously run participatory budgeting in the ward. Individuals had to live in the project area and be at least 14 years of age in order to cast a ballot. The projects that were up for vote had to be short term capital projects (nothing that would require ongoing funding.) Each area had $150,000 to spend. Outreach began in May and voting took place in September.

All of the proposed and chosen projects were public space improvements, including new lighting in parks in Oakridge and Rustic and park fitness equipment and new bicycle lockers in Ward 33. According to the City website, engagement and outreach methods were tailored according to each neighbourhood’s needs and all projects will be completed by March 2017.

Carroll, who was budget chief under former mayor David Miller, is a champion for participatory budgeting in Toronto. Last year she used participatory budgeting to allocate Ward 33’s Section 37 funds—a total of $500,000. The funded projects included a new exercise trail, an outdoor pavilion and a new basketball pad, among others. Most councillors do not proactively consult with their constituents on how Section 37 funds are spent. That means decisions about public space are made without much input from the people who use that space on a daily basis—the public.


Participatory budgeting provides an opportunity to make the budget process more democratic and open, while improving our neighbourhoods with tangible results that the community is supportive of. After all, if you live in a neighbourhood, aren’t you best equipped to know what design improvements  would benefit you? Community doesn’t happen behind closed doors, it happens in our shared public spaces.

The City’s website says the pilot is currently being evaluated for opportunities, benefits and challenges. I am waiting anxiously to hear more about the evaluation, and what the next steps are for participatory budgeting in Toronto. I’m particularly interested in hearing about the community outreach efforts and how effective they were, why people may have chosen not to participate, and how the pilot can be improved upon and expanded.

I love that participatory budgeting connects residents to their neighbours and communities, and allows them to contribute directly to their space. It asks them to look around and think about what would make their shared space more functional. I also love that it adds transparency and inclusion to the budget process. I hope it’s here to stay in Toronto.

Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Joan Milway is one of the founding partners of local PR agency; j+mm communications. In addition to running operations for the company, Joan helps other small businesses tell their story by breaking down the mystery of social media and giving them the skills and tools to approach it with confidence. When not busy running her own business, Joan lends her skills to local advocacy organizations  like Cycle Toronto and Better Budget TO.

Images by:
A skatepark in Poland – funded through a participatory budgeting process, photo taken by Nowy Obywatel from Flickr (cc)

A communication about participatory budgeting inIcapui, Brazil. Photo taken by Paolo Massa from Flickr (cc)

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