Porto Alegre, Brazil, let's the public pick important city projects.                   Photographer: Hiroshi Higuchi/Photolibrary via Getty Images
Porto Alegre, Brazil, let's the public pick important city projects.                   Photographer: Hiroshi Higuchi/Photolibrary via Getty Images

More than half of humanity now lives in cities; that number will rise to two-thirds by 2050, up from just 30 percent in 1950. Given the grave challenges facing the world's booming urban areas -- including global warming, economic dislocation, and crumbling basic infrastructure, among other torments -- tomorrow's mayors will need to take bold steps to ensure their constituents live in dignity and safety.

One of the greatest obstacles to those steps is public distrust of government. For the past 20 years, Brazilian city governments have been experimenting with a way to counter that distrust: participatory budgeting, in which citizens have a hand in allocating resources. Most of Brazil's largest 250 cities have embraced the idea, and the cities of Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre have each allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to capital projects selected by citizens.

Earlier this year, Brian Wampler and Mike Touchton of Boise State University found that Brazilian cities that had used participatory budgeting for at least eight years had markedly lower infant mortality rates than cities that hadn't, after accounting for other factors that might have had an effect. Why? Because initiatives aimed at providing better sanitation and health services in poor areas garnered popular support; availability of these resources, in turn, led to lower numbers of infant deaths.

Wampler and Touchton also found that leadership made a difference: Programs engaging citizens do best when elected leaders buy in. Although it seems paradoxical, top-down insistence on the importance of grassroots participation provides the breathing room that local organizing requires to be effective. There are also clear benefits to the elected officials cheering for participatory budgeting: It can translate to votes later on.

In the U.S., the Barack Obama administration has endorsed the idea of participatory budgeting, but cities remain cautious. Where the process is used at all, it's to allocate very small pots of discretionary funding.

This year in New York City, for example, just $14 million of capital funds were allocated in this way -- a drop in the $7.9 billion bucket of city spending. Ten of the city's 51 council districts took part; participating councilmembers held public meetings to gather ideas and voters chose their favorites. In the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, for example, people chose air conditioning for two neighborhood schools ($400,000) and a new community garden ($85,000).

Similarly small experiments in Chicago and San Francisco haven't had a significant effect on policy. Chicago pioneered participatory budgeting in 2009; five years later, just $10.3 million has been allocated through this process, all from discretionary funds under the control of city aldermen. Only four aldermen out of 50 have tried the process. And it takes a great deal of effort, time, and resources -- including phone banks, flyers and canvassing -- to get people involved.

Yet that effort is worth it. The potential effects of participatory budgeting go far beyond the actual allocation of funds; the point is to build trust in public finance and pull meaningful civic engagement into existence.

That means a few things. First, officials need to get better at communicating. Second, people who aren't usually active in decision-making need to see that their voices are taken into account -- even if their preferences don't prevail. Third, city governments need to be more transparent in their spending practices. Giving citizens a connection with a visible, important process thickens the mesh of civic relationships on which cities will need to rely as they take on daunting future problems.

There are models to follow. A participatory budgeting experiment in Boston last month, "Youth Lead the Change," gave young people age 12 to 25 an active role in deciding how $1 million in capital spending would be allocated. Although the dollar amount is small, the city's agencies involved the students in all parts of the process: planning, working with agency employees to make realistic proposals, and voting for their favorites.

The kids were excited about the process: They went to after-school meetings about the project, stayed late, and asked good questions that demonstrated their expertise -- they knew which community centers and parks were popular.

In fact, this is a good moment for a major municipal push toward engagement of many varieties. Digital technology provides powerful tools, allowing the screens of handheld devices to be part of our civic life. How's the neighborhood park doing? What additional resources does my block need?

All those kids in Boston used texting to get reminders and updates about the participatory budgeting proposals under consideration. Imagine what they'll be able to do to help their neighborhoods solve their problems -- that is, if their city makes that kind of involvement easy and routine.

Just as engineers need to build buildings that don't fall down, we need to construct public institutions that won't crumble under apathy or cynicism. Increased responsiveness is the key, and screens, data, and handheld devices that will make that possible are right in front of us. Letting go of power is hard to do. But we're going to need to try harder.

To contact the writer of this article: Susan Crawford at scrawford@scrawford.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.