For the past eight years, Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) has posed the same question to his Rogers Park residents: How would you spend $1 million to better your community? It’s a big question, and one that some residents of the Rogers Park, Edgewater and West Ridge neighborhoods have stepped forward to answer.
Every year, the City of Chicago grants each of the city’s 50 wards $1.3 million to spend on infrastructure improvements in their neighborhoods. In 2008, Moore proposed letting community members decide exactly how to spend that money through a process called participatory budgeting.
Participatory budgeting is when community members meet to pitch ideas on how to improve the infrastructure of their ward’s neighborhoods, according to the 49th Ward website. Residents then form committees, conduct research and present their project ideas to community members. A popular vote determines what project participants would most like to see completed in their neighborhood.
The first meeting boasted nearly 75 residents in attendance, and later meetings had nearly the same amount. In previous years, meetings have only had an average of 50 residents in attendance. Some residents have attended the meetings each year they have been held, according to Moore’s office.
“I always like to know and keep up with whatever’s going on in my neighborhood,” said Rogers Park resident Ruth Woods. “I like to let [Ald. Moore] know what I think the money should be spent on.”
Woods has lived in Rogers Park for nearly 40 years and said that her main concerns she’d like to see funded by this year’s participatory budgeting project are street lighting and pothole renovations. More street lamps were added to the neighborhood in the 2013 budgeting cycle, but Woods said she would like to see even more lighting around schools in the neighborhood.
Some past participatory budget projects included the outdoor shower at Loyola beach, heat lamps located at outdoor CTA station platforms and chess tables in Loyola park.
“The people can get involved with their alderman,” said Loyola sophomore Dalia Rodriguez. “It’s important for the community and people to be engaged in how they spend this money.”
Rodriguez, a political science major, is a participatory budget community outreach intern at the 49th Ward. She mainly reaches out to the Hispanic community in Rogers Park to get more residents involved in the neighborhood betterment. All residents above the age of 16 can vote for their project choice regardless of citizenship.
“It really is democracy in its purest form,” said Moore. “It’s a system I believe in.”
The 49th Ward was the first jurisdiction in the nation to adopt participatory budgeting, a process that began in Latin America, according to the Ward’s website. Since the introduction of the process in 2008, at least eight other wards in Chicago have adopted the idea. Moore recently returned from a trip to Bangladesh, India, to speak with neighborhoods about implementing participatory budgeting in their towns.
“There were a lot of concerns that only certain areas would get benefited,” said Moore. “But when you come together, and you’re sitting across the table from someone who lives on a different side of town than you do, there’s a sense of community and everyone wants to help everyone.”
Despite the benefits, the process of participatory budgeting has its drawbacks. During the town’s Nov. 14 meeting, some residents expressed concern to Moore over the lack of pavement on their residential streets. If the public does not choose street paving as the participatory budget project this year, paving residential roads in Rogers Park will not be considered for funding again until next year’s participatory budget cycle.
But the Alderman’s staff members said they believe the positives of this system far outweigh the negatives.
“You have an opportunity to have a say and to be empowered by the government and the community at the same time,” said participatory budgeting staff member Cecilia Salinas. “It is a direct voice to choose how your area — where you live — will be.”
Salinas is the only person paid by a city ward to work solely on participatory budgeting, according to Progress Illinois, but she said she hopes other wards will follow in the 49th Ward’s steps and show devotion to this process.
“I believe in this and I don’t think I would be working on something like this if I didn’t feel this type of involvement,” said Salinas. “It’s beautiful to see. I love it.”
The Rogers Park Alderman’s office is holding two more participatory budgeting meetings before the committees will plan and present their projects in April. The first meeting is expected to be held in Spanish on Nov. 30 and the other is scheduled for Dec. 3 in English. The 49th Ward has held budgeting process meetings in Spanish all eight years it has held the meetings, and it has encouraged other wards to do the same.