Sustainable cities are participatory organisms that encourage self-governance. On questions large and small, citizens in sustainable cities find roles open to them in governing, as individual voters, and as members of stakeholder groups. Power and decision making are shared between city hall and smaller jurisdictions within the city. And members of civic groups of all kinds are consulted regularly and included in major decision-making processes.
An excellent example of people-centered governance is the participatory budgeting process pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 and now used in more than 1,500 localities worldwide. In the Porto Alegre process, citizens are mobilized through 16 regional and 5 thematic plenary assemblies to offer ideas for how to spend a part of their city’s municipal budget, including having a voice in deciding how funds will be distributed among districts. Evaluations of the process suggest that participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre has strengthened democracy and civil society in the city and brought new investment to marginalized areas. The process is being adopted in larger cities as well, including New York, which in 2012–13 had 13,000 people participating to determine the distribution of $10 million in city funds.1
Beyond budgeting, several cities in Europe offer models of greater democratization of civic governance.
Beyond budgeting, several cities in Europe offer models of greater democratization of civic governance. In 2014, Amersfoort in the Netherlands introduced the Year of Change, a shift in administrative practices to emphasize shared responsibility and collective leadership. It borrowed a process from Belgium called G1000, under which the city chose a panel of 1,000 citizens randomly and invited them to a deliberative event. Some 600 people showed up and selected and developed 10 project plans to pursue, in partnership with the city administration. City officials noted that “the process was quicker, less expensive, and achieved a wider consultation than when normally done by the municipality.”2
Participatory governance can address a number of issues of widespread importance to the poor.
Participatory governance can address a number of issues of widespread importance to the poor. These include: property tenure, especially on land that the poor have taken the initiative to occupy; securing an “official address,” which often is required to gain access to city services and to vote; and the challenge of regulations that get in the way of making a livelihood or of securing housing or land.3
Gary Gardner is director of publications at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director and contributing author of the State of the World project.
Read more in State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable?