Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday April 9th, 2013, 2:57pm

Uptown Residents Unveil Community-Inspired Projects At Participatory Budgeting Expo

Uptown residents laid out their plans last night on how they’d like to divvy up the 46th Ward’s $1.3 million “menu money” budget as part of a new participatory budgeting process some Chicago aldermen are adopting.

Each year, Chicago aldermen receive city funds and decide how to use the pot of money for infrastructure needs in their wards, such as improving sidewalks, traffic signals and streetlights. 

The participatory budgeting process allows residents to decide how the money is spent based on a community vote.

Prior to participatory budgeting, Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said he and his staffers would ride their bikes down streets and alleys looking for areas of improvement in the ward, which was “very inefficient.”

“This (participatory budgeting) process understands that those people who know the ward the best are those who live in it,” Cappleman said to about 30 residents at an expo yesterday showcasing the proposed projects.

Cappleman is one of four aldermen who are giving their community members the power to directly decide how to spend a combined $4 million in discretionary capital funds. The other aldermen participating in the effort are John Arena (45th), Leslie Hairston (5th) and Joe Moore (49th).

Residents of each ward will be able to vote for their favorite projects between April 27 and May 5.

The citywide process kicked-off last fall with neighborhood meetings that solicited thousands of ideas from community members in the participating wards, said Rachel Weber, associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Weber is also associate director for research and program development at the university’s Great Cities Institute, which provided technical participatory budgeting assistance for the four wards.

The process emphasizes fiscal accountability, Weber said, and encourages community members to get involved with city planning.

But efforts need to be expanded and include more community members who represent diverse backgrounds, she added.

“The process is only going to be as good as the outreach is,” she said at yesterday’s expo. “Hopefully for next year, we’ll be able to raise some money, because that’s what we didn’t have for this year so that we can do more canvassing and outreach.”

In the winter, ward residents formed committees that researched and evaluated project ideas and decided which ones to put on the ballot.

Some of the Uptown projects unveiled at the expo included a public art mural on the north wall of the underpass at the Lawrence St. Red Line “L” stop, sculptures that also function as bike corrals, installation of security cameras near the Sunnyside Mall at Sunnyside and Magnolia avenues, and a left turn signal at the Irving Park and Sheridan roads intersection.

Residents also suggested projects improving bike and pedestrian safety through traffic calming efforts on Clarendon, Leland and Lawrence avenues, along with a redesign of the intersection at Sheridan Rd. and Montrose and Broadway avenues. That plan calls for the creation of a new mini park.

Three community rain gardens and a digital community billboard were also proposed.

Uptown resident Caitlin Elsaesser Gantz, who’s part of the beautification committee, said the rain gardens would serve as green space in the community and also help to reduce flooding in the area.

“It’s both beautiful and functional,” Elsaesser Gantz said.

In 2009, Moore was the first elected official in Chicago, and the country,  to implement ward-based participatory budgeting, according to the New York-based Participatory Budgeting Project, which helped Moore start the process.

Participatory budgeting was first developed in Brazil in 1989 and more than 1,500 other cities around the world have adopted it.

Last year’s winning projects in the 49th Ward included $75,000 for more than 100 trees in parkways throughout Rogers Park; $125,000 for a new rubber-surface playground at Touhy Park; $120,000 for the creation of new murals at more than 20 unpainted CTA and Metra viaducts; and $150,000 for urgent sidewalk repairs.

The process is also being implemented in cities in New York and California, said Josh Lerner, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project.

Lerner said he’d like to see community-led budgeting implemented across all of Chicago’s 50 wards.

“People are looking to see that it works first before you get more money invested,” Lerner said at the expo. “The process in the 49th Ward was one example, but we’ve expanded it here. Now more people are realizing this could happen in their ward.”

Weber said it’s her hope that the four aldermen will continue the process for years to come.

“With these four aldermen, I think they’d really disappoint their constituents if they said, ‘OK, that was really fun for one year. I’m going back to making all the decisions,’” she said.

Elsaesser Gantz said she was enlightened to learn about the community’s needs and to see her fellow neighbors' work.

“It’s really, really nice to be able to interact with my neighbors in a way that’s so positive and to be inspired by everyone,” she said.

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