Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Participatory Budgeting

A woman signs up for participatory voting in Chicago. She kneels on the floor in front of a table, leaning on the table to fill out a form, while another woman on the other side of the table helps instruct her. A blue banner with white text hangs on the wall and reads, "Vote Here. It's time for you to decide how your tax dollars will be spent in your community!"
Participatory budgeting voting event at Taft High School in Chicago.
(Credit: Participatory Budgeting Chicago)

The Participatory Budgeting process has emerged as a compelling and effective procedural equity tool to combine elements of state and local planning processes with effective community engagement. All over the country, a number of municipal governments now allocate a portion of their budgets for the purpose of funding community-led projects to improve parks and playgrounds, among other the spaces within neighborhoods, according to community preferences and priorities. During a participatory budgeting process, residents vote for a project and the council member or alderman supports the funding and implementation of the project and all aspects of neighborhood engagement to gather input and provide feedback.See footnote 1 Typically, public budget and revenue policy and processes are top-down and do not include the participation or insights of underrepresented communities. Without community engagement or an equity framework shaping decisionmaking, top-down processes are more likely to perpetuate racial and economic justice.See footnote 2 Furthermore, participatory budgeting emerges as an effective alternative to processes that reinforce social exclusion by including communities at every stage of the planning processes in a manner that is more likely to align project design and objectives with the priorities articulated by the community.

Although the majority of participatory budgeting processes are government initiated, the incorporation of community engagement at each stage of project development provides a platform for direct input by residents to influence the expenditure of public funds. The process is collaborative at every stage and allows residents to work in partnership with local policymakers. Participatory budgeting processes have the added advantage of fostering democratic participation by providing residents with an opportunity to vote on proposals and projects in a way that brings traditional decisionmaking closer to the lived experiences of the community.

When communities participate in an ongoing participatory budget process, the process is more likely to provide opportunities for better access to public services, greater spending on sanitation and health services, and to achieve reductions in infant mortality and improvements in overall community health.See footnote 3 Communities that are directly impacted by a myriad of social and economic challenges can offer first-hand perspectives about the present, lived realities that can inform how public money should be allocated in the community. This approach can also apply to planning efforts to prepare for climate-related extreme weather events and disasters to direct resources where they are most needed while mitigating the structural causes of social and economic inequalities.See footnote 4 

How local governments reach out to the community influences the likelihood of effective planning and implementation. Research indicates that the way community engagement processes are conducted is closely linked to the very social and economic indicators at the heart of equity-based project design. For example, in-person, face-to-face outreach is critical to reaching traditionally marginalized communities. Community members who engage with project managers and agency professionals online are more likely to be English speaking with higher incomes in comparison to those who hear about a participatory budgeting process through a community group, door knocking, or from a school.See footnote 5 A commitment to equity-based policymaking identifies and distinguishes among several outreach methods and selects outreach methods based on the approach that is more likely to capture a representative sample of the neighborhood. Of course, all of these outreach approaches are more challenging in an era of COVID-19, but efforts should be undertaken to reach underserved community members in outreach.

When governments engage in a participatory budgeting process, policymaking is more likely to reflect the needs and preferences of the community. While pursuing an equity-centered approach to adaptation planning may not resolve all of the structural conditions and systemic causes that have created present-day racial inequalities, a participatory budgeting process that is grounded in community engagement can mitigate the patterns in policymaking and implementation practices that contributed to inequality and social isolation. For example, when residents can directly influence how tax dollars are spent, those resources have a greater chance of being allocated in a more equitable way while increasing the efficiency of tax spending.See footnote 6 Overall, the participatory budgeting process is more likely to incorporate diverse voices in decisionmaking in a way that allows residents to play a meaningful role in the governance and spending in their own neighborhoods.

Participatory budgeting processes are also becoming an increasingly accepted way to bridge the knowledge gap between local agencies and community residents. Community endorsement of participatory budgeting processes has also contributed to the increased popularity of government partnerships. These programs increase transparency and provide a process for disseminating information to the community while narrowing the gap between policy priorities and neighborhood priorities.See footnote 7 Both the process and the favorable outcomes from the participatory budgeting process have been essential in fostering relationships between local government and community organizations.

Elements of a Participatory Budgeting Process

The following provides an overview of the common elements of a participatory budgeting process:See footnote 8

  • Project Initiation: Once the municipality and its council members have allocated funding, often discretionary funding, for the participatory budgeting process, the community is invited to offer project ideas to address a particular problem or neighborhood challenge that the project can resolve.
  • Data Collection and Analysis: Data, metrics, and tools can serve several critical functions throughout the process. Initial stages for climate adaptation projects can include the use of data, metrics, and tools to identify and prioritize neighborhoods using a number of indicators including climate data, geographic area, demographics based on U.S. Census data, social and economic vulnerability indices, and environmental screening tools. These and other factors can provide critical data to develop the initial scope and objectives for the project. Data and mapping tools can help to identify and target areas most in need of policy intervention and provide ongoing metrics to measure community participation, feedback, and project effectiveness. The tracking and assessment of data can also provide a basis for justifying or rejecting proposed policy options. Community participation in the collection of stories and experiences can also provide valuable information that captures what quantitative data might not sufficiently capture. 
  • Community Visioning: Establishing a forum for community dialogue can inform the direction and impetus for plan development and provides a basis of understanding about whether or not the intended benefits of project outcomes reflect the will of the community. When the community is included at these initial stages, residents and local governments are more likely to develop partnerships to share responsibilities in a way that keeps the process open, transparent, and accessible to all participants.
  • Support and Build Neighborhood Capacity: Policymakers can establish a steering committee that assigns project managers to establish the goals, rules, and procedures of the participatory budgeting process while overseeing the entire process. Project managers can target community events and assess places and times to meet community members and recruit volunteers so that the project and process details are accessible. An equity-based approach to community engagement planning considers a time and place for events that encourage broad participation. For example, events held in the evenings or on weekends are more likely to have resident participation than during the 9-5 workday Monday through Friday. Project managers can facilitate the engagement between public officials and the community by coordinating logistics and disseminating information for each stage of the engagement.See footnote 9 Project managers are also charged with ensuring that appropriate expertise is retained to address the necessary education, legal and policy support before, during, and after project implementation. For example, project managers may be charged with retaining a third party who can assist with negotiating the terms of a community benefits agreement between a developer, community group, and any other relevant party.See footnote 10 Other responsibilities may include overseeing the process or acting as an advocate for community interests. Project managers may also recruit resident volunteers who can also play an important role in developing initial ideas by working closely with city agencies to assess the feasibility and cost of projects.
  • Stakeholder Engagement: Program managers can ensure that the community engagement process reflects the multicultural, multilingual, and multigenerational composition of the neighborhood to capture a full range of perspectives. A diverse range of neighborhood perspectives is critical to capturing community knowledge and the experiences of residents but often requires supplemental funding to ensure that essential services (e.g., interpreters, childcare providers) are available to foster participation. When project managers are committed to equitable participation by working to attract and support a truly representative segment of the community, project processes and outcomes are more likely to benefit the community in ways that are aligned with community needs and values. 
  • Plan Development: The staff of planning offices may initiate a plan with direct and ongoing collaboration with the community, but the ideal process will include opportunities to refine goals and objectives based on the input and insights about how to allocate funds based on community needs.
  • Community Voting on Proposed Projects: In the voting phase of a participatory budgeting process, several project ideas are placed on a ballot.See footnote 11 Project managers can provide several voting locations and opportunities for online input. Youth and non-residents can participate to increase community engagement and therefore reach traditionally underrepresented members of the community.
  • Plan and Project Implementation: The majority of participatory budgeting processes include an opportunity for communities to vote on the proposed projects that were contemplated in the community visioning process. The project with the most votes from the community wins and the government commits to implementing winning projects.See footnote 12 Community voting to select a project provides an opportunity for democratic engagement that reflects the prevailing preferences of the community and overcomes some of the historic causes of social isolation.

Outcomes to Participatory Budgeting

Overall, the participatory budgeting process can contribute to direct and indirect benefits in the furtherance of projects and plans that mitigate the causes of social and economic inequalities while preparing frontline communities for the challenges of climate impacts. The process provides an opportunity to increase the likelihood that resources are allocated equitably and prioritizes the needs of communities. The participation by local governments and agency staff on an ongoing basis provides a mechanism for engagement that increases the transparency and accountability that fosters trust between the government and the community.

Considerations of Governance Practices & Participatory Budgeting


  • The participatory budgeting process may include opportunities for jobs and job training programs as a critical outcome of the project selection and implementation process.
  • Policymakers may consider interagency cooperation to include the department charged with executing economic development programs alongside planning and sustainability departments charged with adaptation planning.
  • State and local governments can adopt legal and policy directives that government agencies contract with Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) whenever possible in the acquisition of goods and services to support adaptation planning measures.
  • State and local governments may allocate a portion of their budgets for the participatory budgeting process. Additional appropriations may be necessary for the implementation and maintenance of the project. Larger scale projects may require state authorities to include adaptation projects and programs in their bonding programs. 


  • Participatory budgeting projects have been an effective way to engage communities burdened with cumulative exposure to environmental impacts.
  • The majority of participatory budgeting projects that have been successfully implemented show that voters tend to select projects that will improve the natural environment to benefit the local community.
  • Communities that select green infrastructure projects in participatory budgeting processes experience multiple co-benefits. Additional tree cover can both mitigate urban heat impacts and reduce stormwater impacts and flooding.


  • Community-driven engagement processes that incorporate community considerations at the earliest stages of the project planning process are more likely to foster collaborative engagement between local governments and the community. When the community and local officials are partners rather than opponents, the planning process is more likely to achieve project outcomes than without community participation.
  • Community-driven solutions to adaptation challenges that are fostered through undertaking measures that enhance transparency and accountability build on community knowledge and promote democratic participation.
  • Engaging in participatory budgeting processes can foster civic engagement among residents that can build an infrastructure for outreach for future voting and civic participation.


  • State and local governments may need to engage across several jurisdictions to coordinate any regional considerations that may arise out of the participatory budgeting process.
  • Collaborative planning approaches between policymakers and the community can foster transparency and accountability in the allocation of public funding that will lead to more successful and enduring solutions. This will require more frequent opportunities for authentic community engagement in the administrative process.


  • State and local governments can pass legislation or municipal ordinances that can allocate funding for participatory budgeting processes.
  • Ordinances and statutory language that mandate equity-based approaches to planning and implementation can include provisions that mitigate the root causes of inequities while achieving best practices in adaptation measures.
  • Policymakers may also need to bring in legal expertise to address any provisions concerning land-use and zoning that may arise in the course of project planning.
  • From an equity perspective, policymakers can identify existing regulations that reinforce disparities among residents and repeal laws, and overturn policies and zoning ordinances that have reinforced systemic disparities in areas with concentrated pollution or greater vulnerability to climate impacts.

Lessons Learned

  • Community engagement at the earliest stages of project development increases the likelihood that planning objectives are achieved and that the process includes a mechanism for transparency and accountability at each stage of the project planning process.
  • When state and local governments have the opportunity to allocate discretionary funding for community-led or participatory budgeting processes, the collection of data and metrics can help forecast the likelihood that the funded and proposed planning processes will achieve their intended objectives.
  • To facilitate broad participation in participatory budgeting processes, especially among residents who have typically been underserved or may not otherwise participate, officials — in collaboration with community volunteers — can create specialized demographic committees. These targeted arrangements can help to ensure maximum participation within neighborhoods by emphasizing the importance of these community members’ voices.
  • Encouraging successful participation in this type of budgeting process also requires that officials make accommodations for community members and voters wherever possible. For example, in Chicago, the Participatory Budgeting Committee holds voting sessions on potential projects over several days and at different times, so that more people have the opportunity to cast their votes. State and local officials can also ensure that mobile voting stations are put in places that have higher concentrations of historically underrepresented populations. Food and other services are also provided to help incentivize participation.
  • Participatory budgeting programs can assist city officials in executing their responsibilities to serve their communities. By regularly engaging the public in meetings and workshops, the participatory budgeting process provides city officials with ongoing opportunities to educate residents about projects and interact with the constituents they have sworn to help.



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