What If You Had $20,000 to spend on your neighbourhood…

By Cheryl Lyon –

Get ready, Otonabee Ward! PB is coming! No, not peanut butter and jam but Participatory Budgeting. That’s a tongue-twister so let’s just call it “PB.”

And $20,000 is on the table for us to decide how to use.

Times are a’changin’.  People want more direct say in how our City Council budgets our tax money. And Peterborough’s Council listened. They voted for two things this spring: 

1. more and earlier citizen input into the overall Budget, inviting any citizen to speak to Council at 2 special meetings (one held already in May, the next one in November 18, 6:30 pm at Market Hall); and

2. the start of Participatory Budgeting (PB). That’s the subject of this blog.

PB is not for that largest portion of the Budget that is fixed and mandated (like pensions and debt payment), but for funds left to Council’s discretion.  Granted, this is a small part of the overall City budget of some $227,000,000, but it’s a part that can make a difference in what’s closest to us – our neighbourhood, our Ward. 

For this first trial year of PB, Council is giving $20,000 to each Ward for “capital” projects. That means the hard stuff like playgrounds, gardens, community spaces, repairs, drinking fountains, trails, streets – ideas abound.  Let’s use our imaginations, look around our neighbourhood. What do we see that could need some upgrade or new idea? 

This new Otonabee Ward website is a terrific place to learn about PB, to connect with others, to pitch a project and to start the conversations that lead to action.  The PB process goes like this:

Community members pull up asphalt in front of Brock Mission.
This 2014 community project removed unused pavement in front of the Brock Mission and is an example of the type of project PB can finance.
The garden which replaced asphalt in front of the Brock Mission.
Two rain barrels and native plants now replace the asphalt in front of the Brock Mission. The new garden has a practical, stormwater infrastructure component as it helps to soak up rainwater that would otherwise contribute to flooding in the downtown core.


  • Citizens, individually or assisted by organizations and groups (e.g. Neighbourhood Associations, non-profits, grassroots organizations) bring forward their capital project ideas at a gathering at an identified point in the year – a point that aligns with what’s going on in the City Budget process.
  • Volunteer delegates are selected to represent the various proposals for projects.




  • Everyone who participates in the process votes on these proposals.
  • The winning proposal goes forward to Council for inclusion in that that year’s City Budget.
  • Council implements the top projects. 









Each year, the process starts again, and PB becomes part of the way municipal government works.

Check out this 49 sec. video for the process 


From the start of PB, the community has to be able to believe

  • that there are no pre-conclusions “up Council’s sleeve” that would make community engagement meaningless
  • Council has to make clear to citizen participants all of the constraints on Council financial decisions. 
  • post-decision, Council  must show exactly how the community’s contributions played into the final decisions and their impact going forward.

What does PB  give us?  

  • a fairer and more effective way to manage part of the public’s own money. 
  • a bigger pool of information to the City staff who cobble the Budget together for Council approval every year. This particular benefit is enlarged by the new opportunities for citizens to speak to Council twice before the Budget is finalized – this is a great improvement over the one or 2 nights during the busy Christmas season given to hearing citizen’s input after the budget had already been just about set in concrete!
  • a sharing of responsibility for decisions – taking it off solely Council’s shoulders in a responsible and democratic manner, and therefore,
  • a stronger and more trusting relationship between government, citizens and community organizations

and it’s a lot more fun and empowering than whining at Council for this and that, and waiting for that one night in December to speak – if we have the nerve and the time!

Who else is doing PB (for capital projects)?

 Toronto Community Housing used PB for the agency’s $87M capital budget.  Residents in each housing community participated  –  took 7 months

Guelph, Neighbourhood Support Association –  allocated a $250K  mix of public & foundation funding for programs and capital projects.The City hired a staff member dedicated to implementation of approved  projects. 

Hamilton has experience in PB too. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/talk/how-about-we-all-build-hamilton-s-budget-1.1153664#content

Poster from a Hamilton Ontario participatory budget meeting encouraging citizens living in Ward 2 to submit their ideas for projects.
The concept of including members of the public in local governance is catching on! This photo is from a Hamilton Ontario participatory budget meeting.

PB is only one part of us taking back some power and control over what happens in our community and neighbourhood. We need more than PB to get over the idea that government is responsible for everything because the focus is on the government’s budget. But PB helps turn our attention to our own community’s resources, talents and assets.
PB is  about a relatively small amount of money in the greater scheme of things so we’re not off the hook of our responsibility for keeping in mind larger policy issues beyond our own neighbourhood or Ward, especially in those essential and bigger expense items like affordable housing,  the Parkway, transit and poverty.
And don’t leave it up to “the usual suspects.” Every voice is needed and important. If you’re nervous about participating, come with a group of friends or work through an organization you belong to.

 Ward or neighbourhood planning like this can be like dipping one’s toe in the water: it can lead to bigger things with time and practice.  It can result in a shared vision for our City. It can bring us closer together in hard times. In other cities, PB has erupted into celebrations  like street BBQs, new friendships, help for isolated seniors as well as the restored park or the new traffic calming measures.

So keep your eyes out for a Report from the City (likely September) on how it plans to roll out PB.

You might also like to look at this Participatory Budgeting Project Toolkit www.participatorybudgeting.org/resources. But remember, each community does PB its own way!

So, Otonobee Ward – are we ready?

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