Article about Paris Participatory Budgeting in The Guardian
After barely six months in power, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has put in place the citys very first participatory budget project, setting aside 426m (£335m) 5% of the city hall investment budget from now until 2020. Its the largest sum of public money ever to have been allocated to such a scheme. Proclaiming she was handing the keys of the budget to the citizens, the Socialist mayor put the question to her fellow Parisians: what would they do to improve their city?
Between 24 September and 1 October, the Budget Participatif poll gave city-dwellers the chance to choose from 15 projects; from building pop-up swimming pools to erecting big screens throughout the capital (neither made the final cut). More than 40,740 Parisians voted online and in some 200 locations across the city. The winners list features nine, largely environmental projects which will be implemented from January, their total cost just shy of 20m (the amount allocated for the year 2014-2015).
A 2m project to create vegetation walls that would improve biodiversity received the most votes. Second was a 1m scheme to introduce learning gardens in primary schools, while third most popular was a 1.5m plan to transform gritty, abandoned areas around the citys ring road into space for gigs, exhibitions and film screenings. Mobile rubbish collection points (1m) to facilitate recycling came in fourth, and co-working spaces (2m) for young entrepreneurs rounded out the top five.
We wanted to give Parisians a voice, the citys first female mayor says. Democracy is not only a word in the dictionary, its something that must actually be practised. So beyond the traditional electoral process, has Paris found a revolutionary way to give citizens a say in their citys future?
Carina Rozenfeld, a 42-year-old author from the 15th district believes so. Im a true Parisian. I was born here, live here and my son was born here and is growing up here. Our everyday life is here. I love my city so if I can help to improve it, thats a great thing.
Others who applaud the move say the vote is a chance for those critical of public spending to participate in a new way. It encourages people who have turned their backs on local politics to get involved, says Sophie Pons, a 44-year-old web editor from the 4th district. And they can do so whether they support the left or the right.
Another Paris resident, who gave his name as Sacha, has lived in the 19tharrondissement all his life and declined to vote. What for? he asks. I doubt the fairness and honesty of it all. I didnt find the information very clear either so I give them an F for their educational methods! he laughs. Thats typically French; no one tells you whats happening.
In an unprecedented move, all Paris residents, regardless of age or nationality, were invited to cast their ballots.
As a foreigner this was my only chance to have a voice so I jumped at the opportunity, says Omid Tavallai, a 39-year-old software marketing professional from San Francisco who has lived in the citys 2nd district for six years. Even if its for relatively trivial stuff, it still feels somewhat empowering.
Lamenting life in a very paved over landlocked city he says he misses being near the ocean and mountains, prompting him to vote for mostly environmentally oriented projects.
Tavallai admits to having taken his civic duties for granted while living in the United States. Once you lose the ability to participate you appreciate it when you get it back.
But in a crisis-stricken Paris that in June announced it had a 400m budget deficit (at an average cost of 285 per tax household), some Parisians questioned whether the city had the funds to support such a project, and actively fought against it.
Samuel Lafont is a 26-year-old community manager from Nîmes in the south of France and has lived in Paris for five years. As part of the association Contribuables Associés, he wants the government to reduce excessive public spending. What bothers me is the way this has been handled, he starts. From the posters to the slick website, they spent an enormous amount of money on publicity taxpayers money.
Hidalgo has told Parisians: Heres a gift of 20m, you choose what to do with it but it was ours to begin with, he exclaims. Those funds should stay in Parisians pockets!
Are all of these projects really important to Parisians? Some of them are downright ridiculous, nothing but Anne Hidalgos pet projects that fail to address real problems.
Many Parisians disagree, arguing that its a chance for Hidalgo to test the waters before possibly offering citizens the opportunity to vote on more serious issues in years to come.
We have to start somewhere and this is a good start, says Carina. We cant be given total freedom from the very beginning.
Its only 5% of the budget, Sophie says, reiterating Hidalgos affirmation of a separate budget allocated to housing, childcare, transport and so on. This is completely different. Plus, culture and aesthetics are important too.
The naysayers should suggest their own projects, says Laura Ciriani, a 48-year-old chief administrative officer from the 20th district. Its very easy to criticise coming up with new ideas is something else.
While the participatory budget has divided ordinary Parisians, it has also come under fire from Hidalgos peers. Many opposition councillors took to task the tipis and candles project (allowing children to celebrate their birthday like an Indian in a tipi), which garnered the least amount of votes. Despite the criticism, Hidalgo admitted the idea was close to her heart, saying she was disappointed it came last.
Party in a tipi? Well that just takes the cake, scoffs Brigitte Kuster, mayor of the 17th arrondissement and councillor for the mainstream right-wing UMP party. As a mayor, I see other things that need more urgent attention. France is going through a crisis this is no time to be wasting money.
Another issue of contention was the lack of a verification system for online voters, who could potentially vote more than once using different email addresses. We cant be sure that Hidalgos team and her supporters didnt vote several times, says Kuster.
For anyone to even suggest there was voting fraud must have a twisted mind, Hidalgo retorted. Parisians knew they could only vote once and I trust them.
The Paris mayor promises an even bigger budget next year. On top of that, residents are invited to suggest their own projects, with the websitewww.budgetparticipatif.paris.fr/ already open to public submissions. Says Hidalgo: If Parisians have an interesting, intelligent proposal, Im all ears.