While the percentage of the global population living in urban areas continues to rise and now exceeds 50%, the construction of sustainable, democratic cities represents one of the major challenges of the 21st century.
As places featuring lots of intermixing, innovation, cultural creation and dissemination as well as strong economic driving forces, cities simultaneously face the full force of the social and environmental crises of our time.
Deputy Mayor of Paris Pauline Véron tells us about her experience of the French capital’s participatory budget.
All over the world, elected officials and citizens are attempting to face these challenges by devising new democratic practices and new ways of using public space. In this spirit and firm in the belief that citizen participation in public policy contributes to making our cities fairer and more sustainable, we hoped to make Paris the social laboratory of tomorrow, using it to test several innovative forms of public participation. We believe that such measures are currently vital for at least two reasons. Firstly, they offer a response to the crisis of confidence afflicting representative democracies, as demonstrated by a 40% abstention rate in the latest municipal election in Paris, by restoring dialogue between politicians and the people. Secondly, they can be used as tools for promoting integration and social justice, aimed at disadvantaged populations who have been marginalised by the traditional machinations of government.
The participatory budget
We have therefore developed several physical and digital spaces which enable Parisians to learn about development projects, give their opinion, debate, submit ideas, develop their collective intelligence and vote for certain proposals. We believe that offering many means of participation ensures genuine involvement by the greatest possible number of people and helps a participatory culture spread to all fields of public life. Nevertheless, the participatory budget represents the spearhead of this democratic renewal as it enables residents to decide on how 5% of the city’s investment budget, or 100 million euro per year, is spent, by voting for projects put forward by citizens. As such, it is a device for promoting creativity, discussion and democracy, which gives citizens genuine decision-making power.
A model for the cities of tomorrow
The democratic impact of these measures is potentially huge, and we believe that it is a model that could be developed in the cities of tomorrow, in order that it is understood by all citizens and achieves its full potential. Four major transformations made possible by citizen participation are worth highlighting. Firstly, it represents an excellent tool for modernising and improving public policy. Underpinned by the expertise and desires of the people, land use planning genuinely fulfils its public purpose and adapts to the uses and concerns of those living in the city day in, day out. For example, the participatory budget has enabled us to go further in the creation of green spaces and pedestrianisation, and to establish a very ambitious cycling plan. It has also helped us to improve services for the homeless, such as secure lockers, wash kits and the renovation of numerous shelters.
These measures also generate social connections and genuine reflection on community life, through discussions, forums and project co-construction workshops, providing many spaces for debate and collective construction of political and social projects for our city. They also represent a powerful learning tool. First and foremost, they promote well-informed, active citizenship from an early age as children are able to vote on the participatory budget and even have their own budget for their schools. What is more, placing citizens in the shoes of the decision-makers enables us to educate them on how the city functions on the budgetary, administrative and technical level. Finally, these tools are truly transformative as they endeavour to seek out populations traditionally marginalised by political life, in order to genuinely redistribute resources, public services and power. Our measures allocate a third of the participatory budget to projects in working class neighbourhoods, making them a true force for social and spatial justice.
The implementation of these tools requires a genuine political desire to open up and share decision-making authority, a trust in the collective intelligence of the people as well as an adaptation and transformation of internal working methods. These efforts may be considerable but pay dividends through the immense potential unlocked by democratising the very fabric of the city, in terms of quality of life, community, social justice and citizen empowerment. This great potential should be at the heart of the progressive urban policy of tomorrow.