What goes in the park? You decide: Kitchener pilots participatory budgeting in parks

August 8, 2017

Natalie Brown

Have you ever passed by a park and thought ‘I wish there were more benches to sit on’ or ‘why doesn’t this park have more shade trees?’

You may be nodding your head right now, or even thinking of a specific park you wish could be improved. But engaging in the city budgeting processes that influence what happens in your park can be frustrating. Sometimes it can feel like your voice is not being heard when it comes to the spending decisions that shape your city.

That’s why the City of Kitchener is working with the University of Waterloo and local communities to try something different. If you live near Kitchener’s Sandhills Park or Elmsdale Park, this year you will get to help decide what goes into your park, using a process called participatory budgeting (PB).

So what is PB exactly?

“Participatory budgeting (PB) is a different way to manage public money, and to engage people in government. It is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.” – The Participatory Budgeting Project

The basic process is pretty simple – citizens brainstorm ideas, then work with City staff or other experts to turn them into project proposals. Finally, all citizens get to vote on which projects get funded. As the Participatory Budgeting Project puts it, it’s “real power over real money.”

Park People spoke recently with Ryan Hagey, Director of Financial Planning with the City of Kitchener and Sean Geobey, Director of academic programs for the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience and Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo (UW), about the pilot, what they hope to see, and what has surprised them along the way.

Where did this idea come from?

Ryan Hagey: It came from Kitchener City Council. Early in their term Council brainstormed over 100 different ideas for Kitchener and ranked them all. PB ended up being ranked 16th out of 103 priorities. So Council made it a priority for City staff. It was our job to figure out how to explore this concept.

Why did you choose parks as the focus of the pilot?

Ryan: Parks are neighbourhood assets that people care about, have a vested interest in, and that will be around for a long time. We were already planning to do a review of our parks engagement process. We have a general process that we follow for getting feedback on park developments. We get some high level ideas from people, Parks staff develop two or three conceptual designs, and then they bring them back to people for additional comments before finalizing the design. That’s been our standard process, and there have been some comments that that might not be the best process, so we thought, why don’t we try PB in this setting?

Sean: We came in fairly open as to what we would be working on. There are certainly a lot of advantages to parks – a constrained physical space with capital improvements that are tangible and easy to visualize. Even other things that seem like they might be similar, like community festivals, are more abstract because they are events or services. I think that focusing this pilot on parks will allow us to really enhance peoples’ capacity to make decisions. And then later on when the parks are in use, the results of citizen participation will be tangible, making everyone’s contributions feel more real.

What do you hope to see happen?

Ryan: We hope there is more engagement because people will have direct decision-making power, instead of the power sitting with Parks Planners. At the start we will be asking people to brainstorm what they want to see in their park, similar to what we do now. The real kicker will be later in the process when people get to vote directly for what they want in the park.

We hope to see an outcome that extends beyond the specific park project and leads to more civic engagement. UW’s research shows that PB can lead to more civic engagement generally, including more people voting in elections. Our ultimate goal is to build civic champions within neighbourhoods.

Tell us about the partnership between the University of Waterloo and the City of Kitchener for the PB pilot

Ryan: Early on, the role of the UW team was literature review and research. They looked at where PB has been used and what has been successful. They’ve found through their research that there’s not a lot of documentation about how to do PB in different areas, and in Ontario specifically.

Now they are helping to design the pilot projects at Sandhills and Elmsdale parks.  The City of Kitchener will implement the projects, while the UW team observes and documents. We are excited to see knowledge transfer happen, from the university to the City, about how to do PB.

Sean: My role is to lead the research team [at UW]. This project is really interesting for a number of reasons, one of them is that we have this very creative, engaged partnership with the City of Kitchener. They’re delivering the pilot, but we’re helping them with design and evaluation to see what works. What we’ve seen from our analysis of over 200 PB processes throughout North America is that a lot of the design has been very similar and we feel there is a much broader range of designs and processes that could be used.

What we’re doing is to help the city design two participatory budgeting processes and each of those will run in a slightly different way so we can see what works well, what doesn’t, and why. We’re hoping long-term to try more variations to really explore the process and the variety of ways it can be used.

Why is it important for academics to get directly involved in policy innovation?

Sean: There’s a lot of other ways we could have engaged in this type of experiment. We could have pulled together a few rooms full of undergrads and had them vote on pizza.

But the real constraints that face a municipal government and citizens who are engaging in the process are going to tell us so much more than we could learn in a clinical and experimental setting, both in terms of the variety of participants and what’s doable for a municipality in practice. The messiness of real life will tell us much more about how these processes work.

What’s surprised you about this project so far? 

Sean: The two things that have surprised me most are that 1) that it has captured media attention already and we haven’t even launched the process yet, and 2) how supportive and engaged the City of Kitchener has been on this. We know that not all municipalities that have tried PB have been quite as enthusiastic as the City of Kitchener has. They are a creative, engaged, open-minded partner who is a pleasure to work with.

Ryan: I was surprised to find out that it’s not much of a North American thing. It’s really prevalent in some parts of South America, but in North America, and especially in Ontario, it’s very small. I used to work in Guelph, where they do a limited version of PB in neighbourhood groups. In some ways it’s a bit of a nuisance that there’s no one model to apply, but it’s exciting because we can design it ourselves. There’s no ‘best’ practice that we have to be tied to.

What’s next?

Ryan: Over the summer we are designing the processes for the pilots. Then we’re starting engagement in the fall, and voting before the end of the year. Construction will take place in 2018.

What advice do you have for other cities and communities looking to try PB?

Ryan: We’re new to this so we’re starting small. Our advice would be to start small, stay focused, and learn what you can along the way. We’re not presuming what the outcome is going to be. We’re looking forward to applying what we learn.

We believe that with the City of Kitchener staff and the UW team together, we’ll be able to pull off something that’s good for the community, the city, and the university.

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