Why Paris Is Building the World’s Biggest Participatory Budget

This year, Paris is putting in place the largest and most ambitious citywide participatory budget in history.

The initiative is an important step in our aims to create a more collaborative city.

Historically, the question of citizen participation has been a central one in the politics of Paris. The move towards a more collaborative city had already begun under the former mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, in his two mandates. The arrival of the Left in Paris in 2001 corresponded with a peak in social unrest, between the city authorities and certain local citizen groups who felt disenfranchised. Inhabitants felt left out of the decision-making process and expressed their discontent. Mayor Delanoë and his team realized that this was the moment to change the culture at the Town Hall. It was time for the City of Paris to create a closer relationship with its citizens – especially as it was these citizens that brought about the change in governance.

During this period there was also a wider, nation-wide movement towards increased citizen involvement in decision-making. Several laws were passed in order to include citizens in decisions regarding infrastructure and environment. For example, in 2002, there was the vote of the law for local democracy enabling neighborhood councils, entitled in French, “Conseil de quartier”, which came about after tests in forward-thinking cities such as Grenoble. There was also the introduction of the “Commission nationale du débat public” – an independent, administrative authority with a mission to inform citizens and ensure their point of view is taken into account in decision-making.

When Mayor Anne Hidalgo was elected in May 2014, she came equipped with the experience of working in Delanoë’s team, where she was in charge of urban planning. Her mandate marked a new step in the evolution of a more collaborative city. We knew that it was no longer enough for us to merely inform or provide information. Parisians wanted to actually help projects evolve. The idea to create a citywide participatory budget, on a scale never seen before, had already been germinating. So we got started on the project straight away. We wanted to construct a stronger relationship with citizens, right from the start.

There’s a long-standing tradition in France, even more so in Paris, of liberty of expression.

The participatory budget concerns the whole of Paris – not just certain districts – and encompasses all possible themes, rather than focusing on just one issue such as health, education, or public space. We could easily have included more restrictions – but this would not have worked in Paris, where citizens do not react well to too many boundaries or rules. There’s a long-standing tradition in France, even more so in Paris, of liberty of expression.

We began with a test run in September 2014, a few months after Mayor Hidalgo was elected. We put forward a total of 15 projects that the City of Paris could fund with an envelope of 20 million Euros. Citizens were invited to vote for the projects they believed best deserved the investment. We launched an online vote and also provided ballot boxes for traditional voting. It was the first time that the City of Paris had put forward an online vote on such a large scale. We received over 41,000 votes – 60 per cent of which came through the Internet. According to the budget available (20 million Euros) and the priorities decided by their votes, Parisians approved nine of 15 projects – and we’ll get started on implementing some of them as early as April this year.

This January, we launched the Participatory Budget in full. We have a longer timescale to get even more citizens excited about the project. Crucially, the project ideas will come from citizens themselves. We’re also allocating more money: a total of 65 million Euros. Each year we will set aside a little more – the idea being that between 2014 and 2020, we will have allocated a total of 500 million Euros to projects imagined and chosen by the public.

The most popular topics include public space, and the way we design and use it.

Parisians – including international residents of the city – are invited to submit their project ideas – online or in dedicated spaces in Paris – between January 15 and March 15 this year. There is no limit or restriction to the kind of projects that citizens suggest, as long as they concern the general public interest and capital expenditure. So far, we have received over 2,800 project suggestions. The most popular topics include public space, and the way we design and use it; mobility and ways of combatting pollution; bringing the countryside to Paris – not just planting trees and plants, but creating urban farms with animals and crop cultivation. We’ve also had a lot of suggestions linked to the way we live together, with calls for more spaces that mix generations and cultures through activities such as cooking, dance and games. We’ve also received many suggestions devoted to the arts and sport.

Once entries close on March 15, the City of Paris will group together the propositions that are similar, and contact the people who suggested them to let them know. We’ll eliminate only the projects that are not technically feasible, or suggestions that involve spaces that don’t belong to the City of Paris; for example, the Paris public transport system. Engineers will spend two months studying all the proposals and will group together the similar viable projects.

The idea is that, by June 2015, we’ll have put all the possible projects online for Parisians to look at over the summer, online and in local Town Halls. We’ll also invite the people who submitted ideas to take an active part in the communications campaign around their project. The public vote will happen in September and the final selection forward for the annual vote of the City Council, which always happens in December. The idea is that we’ll be able to launch the final projects in 2016.

The idea of the participatory budget isn’t new. We looked at projects that had already been led in New York, Lisbon, in Porto Alegre, Brazil and in other areas of France. Most of all, we were inspired by activities happening locally, in Paris. Some local councilors had already introduced small participatory budgets of sorts. So we brought together these different elements, taking inspiration from abroad and from Paris, to create something that corresponded well with the mentality of French citizens, and to Parisians in particular. It’s also important to remember that next year, we won’t do the same thing as we did this year, because we’re still testing things out. We’ll apply lessons we learn along the way – and incorporate the feedback we receive from citizens – to constantly improve what we’re doing.

Other cities – in France and beyond – are taking inspiration from our project. This is mainly because of its scale: the amount of money we’re devoting, and the 2.2 million Parisians that could potentially get involved. It’s also an important step in the way in which the City collaborates with citizens. Technology has played a crucial role in our success – particularly social media and Twitter. For example, when Mayor Hidalgo tweeted last year, we immediately received a peak in voting. In addition, thanks to social media, many more 30-somethings are engaging with the project – a demographic that we do not usually see at public meetings. Of course, physical meetings are still important for engaging older citizens, as well as children, who are also allowed to vote. Physical meetings are also vital for helping us build collective projects that match Parisians’ expectations and needs. The project really does touch the whole of Paris.

For me, the most important aspect of the Participatory Budget is the fact that it reinforces a sense of community. It is fostering closer interaction between citizens of different ages, origins, modes of living – reminding us that, despite our different ambitions and outlooks, we are all part of a community and citizens of one shared place. For us – the public institutions – our future challenge will be to re-think certain ways of working and to seek to put in place more projects, more quickly that build a stronger link with citizens.