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Cambridge Residents Begin Voting for Participatory Budget Proposals

Cambridge residents will vote this week to select among various budget proposals.
Cambridge residents will vote this week to select among various budget proposals. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Declan J. Knieriem and Katelyn X. Li, Crimson Staff Writers

Cambridge residents will cast ballots this week as part of the city’s participatory budgeting process, selecting their top five choices among 20 total resident-submitted proposals, in order to decide how to spend $1 million of the city’s budget next year.

The budgeting process involves soliciting proposals from the general public on ways to improve public spaces. The city will set aside more money of its 2021 fiscal year budget compared to recent years to fund and implement the winning proposals. Last year, the city allocated $925,000 to participatory budgeting.

The budget for fiscal year 2020 totaled more than $678 million, a 5.7 percent increase from the previous year.

Voting began Dec. 1 and continues through the end of this week. All Cambridge residents age 12 and over, regardless of citizenship status, are eligible to vote, as well as any university students living in the city. This year marks the sixth cycle of the city’s participation in participatory budgeting.

The city received more than 1,600 proposals from residents in this year’s cycle, according to Matt Nelson, the participatory budgeting coordinator for the city’s budget office.

“This is a way to really bring in residents, not just by sending folks their tax bills and the annual budget process, but also bringing in residents more deeply,” he said. “I think this year we've got a great group of projects on the ballot.”

After receiving the list of initial proposals submitted over the summer, participatory budgeting delegates spent several months reviewing proposals, according to Nelson. When necessary, some proposals were combined or rejected if they did not meet certain criteria. These delegates, in conjunction with other city staff, provide a shortlist of “viable and feasible” projects to be included on the ballot, per Nelson.

The 20 final proposals on the ballot would funnel money toward proposals ranging from environmental preservation efforts to traffic-related improvements to the construction of new public amenities.

There are two bicycle-related proposals this year — one which aims to increase the availability of bike parking and one that would install more Bluebike stations near affordable housing. One proposal suggests putting in public WiFi throughout Cambridge, while another proposal advocates installing more benches across the city.

Environmental proposals include expanding the city’s tree canopy and replacing open trash bins with Big Belly Solar Compactors. One project, Make the City Bloom with a Habitat Corridor, suggests planting “native flowers and vegetation” along a strip that connects Fresh Pond and Mt. Auburn Cemetery — an area that is “crucial” to the city’s biodiversity, according to the project description.

City Manager Louis A. DePasquale wrote in a statement that the goal of participatory budgeting is to promote “engagement” among Cambridge residents.

“I have always looked for ways to connect the community with city finances, and Participatory Budgeting has been a great tool for achieving this goal,” he wrote. “I am proud that through the first five cycles Participatory Budgeting, we have funded over $3.6 million in 33 capital projects – all of which were submitted, developed and voted on by the Cambridge community.”

This year’s $1 million allocation stands as the highest capital commitment to the project so far. Past winning projects include solar panel installations at a public library, bike repair stations, and public restrooms.

Rochelle G. Ruthchild, a member of the 888 Women’s History Project, contributed to a proposal to build a public art installation in commemoration of the black, feminist, and LGBTQ activists who occupied 888 Memorial Drive in 1971.

“The women’s movement in general, it is the least documented, of any of the great social movements of the 20th and 21st century, so to do a public art installation that both honors the community activists of Riverside, and the women who took over the Memorial Drive building goes some way towards increasing the visibility,” Ruthchild said.

Lifelong Cambridge resident, Amanda Peters, said that the participatory budgeting process is an important tool of democratic governance.

“I think it's a fantastic opportunity for residents to be able to have some say in how their money is spent,” Peters said. “To have a portion of the money that can go to projects that might seem like side projects, but in fact are really important for the life and the livability of the city. . .it's really great to have those ideas come directly from residents.”

— Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

— Katelyn X. Li can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @katelynxli.

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