When the city of Boston gave teenagers the power to allocate a million dollars a year on urban improvements, there was skepticism – not just from officials, but from youth who assumed they’d be ignored. The results surprised everyone
It is after business hours in Boston’s cavernous City Hall, but down an escalator, past shuttered service windows and darkened offices, the day’s activity is just beginning. Fifteen high school students have gathered in a room, grabbed pizza slices, opened laptops and are preparing to spend the next two hours deciding how to spend a million dollars.
Anthony Cardarelli, 15, drops his backpack and takes a seat. He is a newcomer at the meeting, and only came because his mother thought it was a good idea. He is soon startled to hear that the meeting will help allocate real city money, for real projects. “I thought it would be a simulation,” Carderelli says. “now I have to be a thousand times more serious!”
The teens are part of Boston’s Youth Lead the Change initiative, a participatory budgeting programme that draws young people firmly into annual cycles of municipal decision-making. This year, a two-month phase of public crowdsourcing has generated more than 700 ideas. Now committees of “change agents” like Cardarelli are working to distill those ideas to a few feasible proposals. In May, there will be a public vote, open only to Bostonians from 12-25, to choose which proposals get the green light.
Participatory budgeting has been used in one form or another in an estimated 1,500 cities worldwide since it first started in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. But Boston’s is the first for youth only. The programme began under former mayor Thomas Menino and came to fruition after Martin Walsh assumed the office in 2014.