Lessons From Argentina: How Participatory Budgets Can Increase Civic Engagement

Portland State Study Abroad students meeting with local legislator Carlos Comi to discuss city projects like Presupuesto Participativo.

In 2002 the port-city of Rosario, Argentina’s 3rd largest municipality, was experiencing heavy growth and a bevy of deficits, not the least of which pertained to civic engagement. Amidst economic growing pains, with an eye towards the future and sustainable practices, the city’s core leadership decided to embark upon an experimental path to engage its citizenry and create a more robust network of citizen-lead, city-supported projects.

Relishing the opportunity to talk about city planning and the place of the participatory budget with policy-maker Carlos Comi (left, with scarf) and Portland State's own Political Science professor, Dr. Melody Valdini (far end of table).

Not unlike the birth and growth of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement in 1976, Rosario sought to dismantle existing barriers to services and programs through physical decentralization of power. Their first step was to divide the city itself into six distinct neighborhoods - barrios - creating a network of offices centered in each area that provided services to neighbors within that district akin to those provided by our own Department of Human Services, Department of Motor Vehicles and various Neighborhood Coalitions.

What happened next was the birth of a model that cities like Portland can take note from. Rosario set about joining in the South American trend of participatory budgets at the municipal level, an endeavor that has seen great accomplishments and expansion for over a decade.

Presupuesto Participativo, (literally, “Participatory Budget”), began as a pilot project in 2002 and has since extended to several municipalities and states throughout Argentina. The nuts and bolts of the program are straightforward and pragmatic, but the goals of the project extend beyond increasing citizen participation in a strictly monetary sense to loftier echelons of combating corruption, increasing government transparency, cultivating early education about best community practices and creating a more vibrant, interconnected city, responsive to the needs of its citizenry.

Rosario's Mayor, Mónica Fein, speaking about the efficacy and future of Presupuesto Participativo

Essentially, Rosario allocates a substantial amount of its budget each year to a special fund for the program, which is then divided into equal amounts for each of its six neighborhoods. In its first phase each year, citizens propose projects for improvement within their district. The proposals often run the gamut from the creation or improvement of parks and public spaces to special after-school programs or educational services. Readers of my previous First Stop blog post may remember the organic huerterito, or little farm, that I visited as part of a tour of Rosario’s sustainability projects. That huerterito is one manifestation of the Presupuesto Participativo and was born of that neighborhood’s election to support low-income families and individuals start their own small businesses with the city’s support through funding, education and guidance. It has been a deliciously huge success.

In some cases the proposals include projects that should ostensibly already be provided by the municipal government, like street repair. However, in Argentina, municipalities are not immune from the corruption and clientelism that plagues politics at large and some districts within the city often receive more attention than others when it comes to basic services. As a result, the participatory budgeting model functions as a further check on the city to alert those in charge of governing allocations to which districts might be in need of more attention or to where funds may have been inappropriately diverted from such projects in the first place.

During polling weeks, temporary public spaces are erected to house voting areas like the one featured above. Residents of the Norte (North) neighborhood cast their votes on secret ballots after watching videos detailing the proposed projects, or interacting with one of the many Presupuesto Participativo representatives.

During the second phase of each fiscal year, neighbors spend a few weeks learning about the proposed projects for their barrio through public campaigns, both in-person and online. Voting is held in the same two fashions and, by the end of the quarter, projects are chosen based on popular vote, to be implemented in the following fiscal year. This part of the process connects city bureaucrats to the citizenry at the voting events and through educational campaigns. It also extends the educational component by exposing citizens to the intricacies of city-planning and budgeting, leading to a better-informed and, in many cases, more patient citizenry. Neighbors then elect point-people for each selected project who serve as representatives of their neighborhood and receive guidance and resources from the city to aid in seeing the projects through to completion.

Citizens attending Rosario's Annual Intercultural Fair were able to stop in at the Presupuesto Participativo inflatable tent, learn about the year's projects proposed for their neighborhood and cast their vote.

Since its inception 13 years ago, participation in Rosario’s inclusive budgeting project has increased exponentially, with about 10% of its roughly 900,000 citizens contributing to the process last year. In 2009 the endeavor expanded to include a separate experience for younger citizens, to further expose Rosario’s youth to the participatory process. While the nearly $10 million budget afforded the program pales in comparison to that of larger city’s like Brazil’s Porto Alegre (which pioneered city-wide participatory budgets in 1989) or New York City (the U.S.’ largest participatory budget), its successes have allowed the city to increase funding steadily with each passing year. Rosarians consistently report increasing satisfaction with the program, too, as each year the processes become more fine-tuned and projects benefit from greater efficiency in implementation and positive results for the communities in which they are housed.

One highly successful project born from a session of Rosario's participatory budget is the city's bike sharing program, highlighted here near the information and voting tent.

At First Stop Portland we focus on the exchange of knowledge between cities the world over. Part of the reason we are able to look beyond our own city limits and extend our wisdom is due to the robust civic participation that has paved the path to our present. Oregon, and specifically Portland, have constantly ranked amongst the highest levels of civic participation within the United States, and Portlanders are known for their vocal and sustained participation in city projects and affairs. As our city faces its own influx of inhabitants, however, we may soon need to build upon our foundation of inclusion and experiment in new ways to address neighborhood concerns and promote civic engagement. Considering the successes of participatory budgets the world over, it may behoove Portland to soon include its citizens in its budgeting processes and, by doing so, add new depth to our legacy as a city of bridges, across rivers, between communities and towards innovation.


Pick Yourself Back Up

Transit planner, Peter Koonce (center) with planners from Reykjavik, Iceland.

(Photo taken by Victoria Dinu)
Cities across the world are challenging themselves and others to work towards reducing climate risk and greenhouse gas emissions. “Is the conversation getting easier as the city gets greener?” asked one of the five urbanist from Iceland who joined us for a day long study tour. Many of their questions where almost rhetorical, proving the point that there is still much to learn and improve when collaborating with different sectors while creating a shared vision for the future.
Two of the deeper themes that threaded throughout the day alluded to how change is made and the importance of intentionality in regards to protecting our natural environment and what is built in, on, and around it. At one point, Portland transit planner Peter Koonce explained that the best way we can make the conversation and the process easier was to:

1) “Internalize caring about the environment, and its value.”
2) “Do things incrementally.”

Icelandic planner, Ragnar Björgvinsson (right) chats with Principal Landscape 
Architect, Mike Faha (left) from GreenWorks. (Photo taken by Victoria Dinu)

Although there were many interesting conversations to pull from; as communication researcher with a focus on public space, I’m going to selfishly focus on a striking comment made by one of our Icelandic planners during our visit to Westmoreland Park. I also want to focus on this comment because it speaks to a larger theme of resiliency. 
Here in Portland, Oregon we take pride in the diversity of the natural land surrounding us. This too is similar in Iceland. Because the great outdoors are so close to home, it is a central part to our belief system of what we prioritize as being important. One local architecture firm, GreenWorks exemplified these beliefs when they designed the Westmoreland Park in SE Portland. This nature-based play area includes boulder mounds, log structures, and movable sequoia branches. The design and material used show a stark difference compared to what most playgrounds look like in the U.S. and around the world. Our delegation was fascinated by the park's natural character and design and how the children were interacting with it. 
GreenWorks Principal Landscape Architect, Mike Faha walked us around the park. He described some of the apprehension parents first felt about the unorthodox play structures. One mother told him "My child could get hurt..."  then looked at Faha and smiled after she realized that maybe that was probably a healthy experience for her child. The Icelanders pointed out that many of the playgrounds across their country were being standardized to look the same and made with unnatural material. Brynja Ingólfsdóttir, a planner from Reykjavik explained, "If you don't fall and hurt yourself, you never learn how to be normal, or what normal is." Another delegate from Iceland chimed in,  "If parks are too safe, kids experimenting and playing don't get hurt and don't learn how to improvise."

These ideas struck me. If we want our youth to learn how to be more innovative, creative and ultimately more resilient, why wouldn't we want these traits as adults - and why not our cities as well? Why do we not allow ourselves to fall, brush ourselves off and try again? When we are discussing and putting ideas into practice, how will we champion new sustainable practices if we don't take bold risks and learn from them whether they are successful or not? 

This thought was echoed just a few weeks later when I sat down with U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist, Angela Ruggiero. Ruggiero is now a part of the International Olympic Committee and holds an MBA from Harvard. Much of her focus is concerned with getting kids active and playing sports. She believes that being active and collaborating on a team is crucial for a child's development. She explained that getting kids active and playing on a team allows them to learn how to work together and can begin to practice leadership skills early on. In 1998, Ruggiero was a part of the U.S. Ice Hockey team that took home gold, and during the next three Olympic Games she helped her team win two silver, and a bronze metal as well. If anyone can speak from experience on teamwork and leadership, it's safe to say that Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian, is an expert.

I freestyle figured skated most of my adolescent years but now mostly stick to ice dancing. I could relate to her in understanding the discipline it takes to balance work and play. During our chat I mentioned that the first thing I learned how to do on the ice, was how to fall. She laughed and agreed. That's just what you do. It's the first thing you learn, whether you're a figure or hockey skater. You learn how to fall and how to safely pick yourself back up. "That's really interesting," she explained, "You know, these patterns are learned early on."

So what does this all mean, and how does it relate to the "green conversation"? The lessons in the park with our Icelandic delegation, and the conversation with an Ice Hockey legend has led me to believe that resiliency is an underlying theme and a characteristic we need to embody. Resilience is even a central term in the rhetoric used today when communicating about the environment. According to Robert Cox, a former United Nations officer and Phaedra Pezzullo, an Associate Professor at the Indiana University wrote about this in their book, "Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere". They explain "The modern environmental movement remains heavily influenced by early 20th-century ecologists and core terms they have identified such as resilience, an organism's ability to adapt and to persist at the same time" (Cox, Pezzullo 2016). When we plan for the future and attempt to solve some of the most pressing issues involving our environment, our thinking and ideas will need to be new, innovative ones. The only way to do that is allow ourselves to take risks, and if we "fail" or "fall", it educates our steps moving forward. We must adapt and proceed with strength and curiosity in order tackle environmental issues facing our cities and planet. 

Portland State University Senior,
Victoria Dinu


The Dream of the 50s is Alive in Havana

Student Ambassador, James Alexander takes a First Stop Portland perspective on Havana’s rapid urban transitions

My first steps out of the José Martí International Airport were greeted by a humid blast of warm air seasoned with smells of heavy car exhaust. The taxi driver placed my luggage in the back of his bright blue Chevrolet Bel Air (1958) -- a deep sigh of relief --  “Where are you from, Sir?” the man asked in very broken English. “Portland, Oregon.” I replied. “Ahhh...Portland!” he said quite excitedly. I knew I was in good hands. 

My housing arrangement had been made back in Cancun by some questionable individuals at the airport, but that soon proved to be quite a worthwhile exchange. The house was owned by a charming old woman who had spent her career working for the Ministerio de Cultura (Cuban Ministry of Culture). Pictures of Fidel and family were seen throughout her home. She gave me a very informative background on the historical context and present state of Cuba’s housing laws, socialized medicine, and education. She asked me questions about the Pacific Northwest, as I was her first resident from the area; specifically, I shared with her our regional successes in smart growth, transportation options, sustainable design, and how Portland differentiated itself from other American cities. “You share cars?!” she said while laughing hysterically.

It was no laughing matter. Despite the relative flatness of Havana’s urban landscape, bikes were hardly present as the taxi industry dominated the roadways. It was not uncommon for residents to work as part time cab drivers (good luck Uber) in addition to their main profession, as low wages force many into the industry. Moreover, the piles of rubble and potholes present on every city block made our own infrastructure debacles seem ludicrous  >insert street fee joke here< . Even as relations continue to be rapidly restored here, the introduction of bikes and bikeways will take decades.
As Cuba begins to open itself up to the world, everyone wants a piece. Practices in urban redevelopment and government-driven investment were fascinating in Havana. According to a recent report by The Guardian, Fidel’s administration established Habaguanex, a state-led tourism venture, which worked very similarly to Tax Increment Financing here in Portland: it fueled urban renewal throughout much of Old Havana back in the 90s, developing hotels, restaurants, and boutique shops. Like TIF, the profits were reallocated back into the districts to revitalize public spaces and improve roads. Its successes were quite evident in the stark contrasts between the beautiful plazas found throughout Old Havana and the buildings on the verge of collapse in neighboring districts. Well done, Castro.

Interestingly enough, despite the amount of development occurring in Havana, there was absolutely zero demolition projects. My cab driver explained to me that there is a shared conventional wisdom among Cubans that old buildings must be preserved. Historic preservation and adaptive reuse ruled the urban landscape. Not far from our house was one of Havana’s most successful adaptive reuse projects: El Cocinero. In what used to be an old oil refinery, El Cocinero is now one of the city’s premier dining experiences. In addition, it houses the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a world-renowned venue for art, theater, film, music, and design. Sorry, but it put our own Gerding Theater to shame. 

Having the opportunity to visit Cuba in its forbiddenness was one element of excitement during my stay. However, in my two years working with First Stop Portland, I have listened and learned from our experts here, as well as from many experts abroad . Having that knowledge and observation to bring with me to this truly fascinating city left me with an experience that I’ll never forget. It will be very exciting to see what will change and what will stay the same in Havana as it begins to open its doors to a rapidly urbanizing world. Who knows, maybe First Stop Portland will host its very first delegation from Cuba?

James Alexander
First Stop Portland 


First Stop Student Ambassador on Sustainability Study Tour in Rosario, Argentina

Greetings from Rosario, Argentina!
Reminders to imagine, learn and care for your health hang from blossoming trees on Rosario's "waterfront park" on the banks of Río Paraná during Art Week 2015.
It’s been two and a half months since I first arrived in this burgeoning municipality where I began to learn so much about city planning, civic engagement and sustainability, South American-style. Studying the political history and culture of Argentina with Portland State University Political Science Professor Melody Valdini has allowed me to capitalize upon the university-to-city connection that First Stop Portland is founded upon and values so deeply. My experience as a student ambassador for FSP prepared me well to meet with city and national officials, helped me access information about municipal programs, and deepened  my research of ways cities (including Portland) use planning policy to strengthen democracy. Coupled with witnessing one of the nation’s most exciting presidential elections to date and you may begin to understand the exponential value of my experience thus far.

Whether on the sides of government trucks, at the site of a street repair or on the vest of a volunteer coordinator, "Rosario in Action" can be seen everywhere, as city programs gain momentum.

I recently attended an all-day tour of city-sponsored sustainability initiatives called“Turista en mi Ciudad” (Tourist in my City), which was sponsored by Hogares Verde, the environmental branch of Rosario’s city government. It offered civil engineers, students, every-day Rosarians the opportunity to see first-hand how the city’s programs are working to keep Rosario sustainable and thriving amidst increased growth. The program began in 2012 and is impressive in both its level of organization and accessibility. Hogares Verde promotes social and environmental values ​​for responsible citizenship through the framework of sustainable development. The tours it provides are offered completely free of charge to the public on a monthly basis. They include transportation on a private bus, lunch and mementos provided by the different projects and spaces visited.

Rosario's composting facility, where inorganic and organic materials are separated and processed.
It was especially interesting to participate in this city-sponsored tour given my experience assisting study tours with First Stop Portland. How does our twin city to the south structure its own study tours? Their program covered municipal waste and composting practices, green spaces, and  programs addressing food deserts and low-income entrepreneurs. It’s affirming to witness another forward-thinking city with the same values for smart growth as we hold back home.

Crash course in Bolivian handicrafts, led by local activist.
Our tour began with a celebration of traditional Bolivian handcrafts in honor of Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity). The installation was housed   at a public library, Biblioteca Estrada, and was part of Semana del Arte 2015, an annual city-wide celebration of art during which hundreds of free installations, performances and lectures can be found throughout the city every day. Think of Portland’s own annual Time Based Art, but with about ten-times the daily events! Local artist and agriculturist, Roberta Valencia, guided us through the significance of her work and the process through which it was made. It was a lovely context in which to begin our tour and provided the historical reference for the cultures and people who shaped South America before its widespread colonization.

After boarding the bus we headed about 30 minutes outside of the city-center to Barrio Bella Vista and the city’s composting center, Planta de Compostaje. There, at the outskirts of town, our guide, Daiana Pellegatti, demonstrated the process by which refuse and recyclable materials are gathered and separated as part of the city’s nascent composting plan. Like many South American metropolis’ (and definitely some within our own country), Rosario faces the challenges of striving towards sustainability within a culture that places little importance on waste reduction.

 In an effort to combat cultural norms and pave the way for citizen involvement, the City of Rosario created the facility to generate compost to be used in city parks and government-sponsored organic gardens and farms. At the same time the program seeks to provide in-home composting units made of recycled materials for Rosarian households, and educational opportunities to “spread” the composting idea, as it were.
Office water jugs are re-purposed as colorful household composting receptacles distributed by Rosario's composting education program.
Tour participants learn about Rosario's plan to bring composting to households across the city.
Organic material undergoes an aerobic process as it turns into compost over time.
The process of dividing organic from inorganic material, staging and cultivation currently produces over 120 tons of compost per month and is seeking to expand in coming years. I felt spoiled coming from Portland, where the cultural tendencies and physical existence of areas to plant food at almost every home definitely bolster the city’s efforts towards wide-scale composting. It will be exciting to see how Rosario creates institutional incentives for citizens to participate in this program in the future

Arriving at the expansive city park and protected wildlife area.
Next we traveled to Bosque de los Constituyentes, a park established in 1981 as a wildlife sanctuary, to protect native species of flora, and to provide large expanses of green space within a rapidly growing urban environment. Our tour guide was an employee of the city’s Parks Division, and has been working with this particular park since the great movement for “urban reforestation” began in 1992. With the 20 hectares of public land, the city aims to offer visitors a place of relaxation and rest and to combat the effects of environmental degradation.

Site director René Marconi explains the park's history and purpose in a verdant setting.
It has become an indispensable tool for urban development within the city’s sustainable vision and, much like the best practices that we explore in Portland through our FSP Study Tours, the planning has relied largely on public-private cooperation to protect areas surrounding the park for future expansion and to create private interest in the benefits of public-space investment.

An artificial lake provides a protected habitat for native birds and turtles.
Our last stop was a small-scale farm run by a group of low-income women and their families with assistance provided by a joint effort from Rosario’s Urban Agriculture program and  the city’s Secretary of Social Promotion. Rosario is home to a thriving network of urban organic huerteritos (little farms), both in public parks and in reclaimed urban spaces.
A guide from Rosario's Urgan Agriculture program explains the origins and purpose of El Huerterito de Newbery while one of its founding members prepares our brick-oven pizza.
El huerterito de Newbery is, for example, on the side of a small freeway connecting neighborhoods in the greater Rosarian area to the city center. As part of its Economía Solidaria (Economic Solidarity) program, the city partners with low-income individuals, families and farmers to help them train in small-scale agribusiness production, to stimulate economic security and awareness of health and sustainability practices.

Key-hole gardens and recycled bottles to be used for container gardening are just a few of the permaculture elements employed by entrepreneur graduates of Rosario's economic solidarity program.

Food made from the farm's produce is distributed from the operations headquarters of the farm.
Having been recognized by the United Nations’ Organization for Food and Agriculture for its work to promote urban agriculture, Portland can look to Rosario for clues of how to create community buy-in, bolster the economy and address issues of food scarcity as our own city expands.

All in all Rosario’s “Tourist in my City” excursion was one of the most diverse and illuminating experiences I’ve had during my time here. Throughout the day I was struck by how much I was learning - and how all of it was free! I thought about how our own city might be able to increase accessibility to all of its pioneering projects and examples of smart-growth design by following the examples of Rosario and First Stop Portland: engaging potential innovators through education.


Tsukuba Dives Deep into City-University Partnerships

Kaori Yamashita (right) is First Stop's newest Student Ambassador. She lives in Tokyo and is studying at Portland State University this year via Waseda University.

Last week, we welcomed Japanese delegation of Tsukuba University. This day was my first experience of study tour. We met up at First Stop Portland’s office and discussed for a while with Ankita Guchait, Marketing & Outreach Coordinator from student Sustainability Center and Jacob Sherman, Curriculum Coordinator from Institute for Sustainable Solutions. The delegation from Tsukuba University wanted to know, how PSU strategically establishes partnerships with local government and other institutions around the city.

Jacob explained that PSU provides knowledge and human resources to the city. This includes researchers and professors, of course, but also students. Ankita explained Portland State's students get involved to achieve sustainable city through the the many volunteer and internship opportunities the university offers.

Jacob Sherman, Portland State Institute for Sustainable Solutions (left)
Afterwards, we headed to the Pearl district by streetcar, to illustrate Portland’s commitment to walkable, high-density and mixed-use neighborhoods. We spent a little time at rooftop of Ecotrust that used to be an old warehouse. This building is meaningful in terms of getting LEED certification-- a benchmark for green building in the U.S.. Event through redevelopment, the structure retained its historic character, including old types of ceiling and windows.

Lastly, we visited the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Their school building was recently renovated to preserve and reuse an old 1919 Federal building. Sean Woodard, PNCA's Interim Facilities Director, showed us many revolutionary ideas to save energy even though it is old building. The Tsukuba delegation was particularly interested ways PNCA student projects are featured throughout the city. The visitors shared with PNCA ways Tsukuba University student art projects are featured throughout Tsukuba city. That was really cool!

Although the Tsukuba delegation came on study tour to learn Portland’s innovation and efforts to make a green city,  Portland learned a lot about successful projects in Japan as well.

View from the roof of PNCA's newly renovated building in Old Town, Portland








Student Update: Study Abroad in Argentina

Adriane Ackerman is a First Stop Portland Student Assistant studying in Rosario, Argentina this fall. She'll be posting her notes from the field throughout the term.

Since May, 2105, I have had the opportunity to work with First Stop Portland where I have learned from and, at times, presented alongside Portland’s premiere innovators and experts in sustainable city design and development. Participating in professional conversations with public and private sector leaders from around the world has given me a new lens through which to consider policy and planning choices at the municipal level.

University buildings lining Plaza San Martín
This lens has proved invaluable to my studies at Portland State, including my senior Honors thesis, which examines ways cities (including Portland) use planning policy to cultivate democracy. My work at First Stop has helped me understand how to ask the right questions when looking to learn from cities around the world. Now it's helping me here, while I'm studying, researching (and submitting blog posts!) from Rosario, Argentina, this term.


First Stop helps St. Louis tap Portland's bicycling brain trust

Submitted by: Adriane Ackerman
Student Assistant, First Stop Portland

At First Stop Portland, we’re an ambitious group. We facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges about best practices between Portland's experts and leaders the world over. We promote Portland State University as a leader in the global conversation about sustainability. We help cities achieve their goals by sharing lessons from Portland, our successes and our failures.

Since our ultimate goal is successful knowledge exchange, it is particularly rewarding when a group asks us to host a hands-on, working and planning experience for them, in which the Portland model can be influential and the fruits of the exchange are tangible and immediate. This week we were afforded just such an opportunity as we facilitated a design charrette for alternative transportation leaders from St. Louis, MO, heading into the final phases of a major bike route expansion project.