Making Government Work

Why Boston Asked Its Youth to Determine How to Spend $1 Million

July 2, 2014
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Why Boston Asked Its Youth to Determine How to Spend $1 Million
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And how more cities can stand to benefit from a participatory budget.

As America inches closer to the 2015 election, a new wave of initiatives to engage the country’s youth will soon follow. But instead of launching social media campaigns or canvasing college campuses to capture their attention, Boston is empowering young people to care by involving them in the budget process.

Earlier this year the city launched the Youth Lead the Change project, a participatory budget (PB) process inviting young people between the ages of 12 and 25 to give input into how Boston spends $1 million in public capital. The project—the first of its kind in the United States—was limited to “bricks and mortar” funding, ranging in categories including education, community culture, parks/environment/health and streets and safety.

Young Bostonians worked on designing the PB process as well as with city officials on project proposals, spending priorities and current projects in place. The pilot included projects ranging from improving community centers and renovating parks to neighborhood safety and creating new public art space.

Officials then set up voting booths throughout the city at schools, transit stops and community centers from June 14 to June 20. Young people were encouraged to vote for four of the 14 projects showcased, using digital tools such as SMS, Vimeo videos with Mayor Marty Walsh and a custom built platform for ideation collection, according to New York University’s Governance Lab. Young Boston residents joined Mayor Walsh to celebrate the winners this week, which include:

1. Franklin Park Playground and Picnic Area upgrade ($400,000)
2. Boston “Art Walls,” public spaces for local artists to display work ($60,000)
3. Chromebook laptops for three area high-school classrooms ($90,000)
4. Skatepark feasibility study ($50,000)
5. Security cameras for the community near Dr. Loesch Family Park ($105,000)
6. Paris Street Playground makeover ($100,000)
7. Renovate sidewalks and lighting around two Boston parks ($110,000)

The city worked in collaboration with the Participatory Budget Project (PBP), a nonprofit geared towards assisting local, national and international organizations with empowering citizens to become decision makers in the public budget process. More national cities like Chicago and New York have also pledged to use participatory budget practices in partnership with PBP, but perhaps the key to unlocking greater civic participation is focusing on America’s next generation.

Rather than targeting political messaging to young people, let the youth be the architects creating that message. If we begin to foster an environment that empowers young people to be a part of the solution, improving parks and creating art space is just the start of where we can take American progress.

MORE: How Mobile Apps Help Local Governments Connect with Citizens

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