Paris is asking its citizens to decide how it spends €500m by 2020

Paris' city hall, as seen from the Seine. Image: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty.

This year, Paris is putting in place the largest and most ambitious citywide participatory budget in history. The initiative is an important step in our aims to create a more collaborative city.

Historically, the question of citizen participation has been a central one in Parisian politics. The move towards a more collaborative city had already begun under the former socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, in his two mandates. The arrival of the Left in Paris in 2001 corresponded with a peak in social unrest, between the city authorities and certain local citizen groups who felt disenfranchised. Inhabitants felt left out of the decision-making process and expressed their discontent.

Mayor Delanoë and his team realized that this was the moment to change the culture at the Town Hall. It was time for the City of Paris to create a closer relationship with its citizens – especially as it was these citizens that brought about the change in governance.

During this period there was also a wider, nationwide movement towards increased citizen involvement in decision-making. Several laws were passed in order to include citizens in decisions regarding infrastructure and environment. For example, in 2002, there was the vote of the law for local democracy enabling neighborhood councils, entitled in French, “Conseil de quartier”, which came about after tests in forward-thinking cities such as Grenoble. There was also the introduction of the “Commission nationale du débat public” – an independent, administrative authority with a mission to inform citizens and ensure their point of view is taken into account in decision-making.

When Mayor Anne Hidalgo was elected in May 2014, she came equipped with the experience of working in Delanoë’s team, where she was in charge of urban planning. Her mandate marked a new step in the evolution of a more collaborative city. We knew that it was no longer enough for us to merely inform or provide information: Parisians wanted to actually help projects evolve. The idea to create a citywide participatory budget, on a scale never seen before, had already been germinating, so we got started on the project straight away. We wanted to construct a stronger relationship with citizens, right from the start.

There’s a long-standing tradition in France, even more so in Paris, of liberty of expression. 

The participatory budget concerns the whole of Paris – not just certain districts – and encompasses all possible themes, rather than focusing on just one issue such as health, education, or public space. We could easily have included more restrictions – but this would not have worked in Paris, where citizens do not react well to too many boundaries or rules. There’s a long-standing tradition in France, even more so in Paris, of liberty of expression.

We began with a test run in September 2014, a few months after Mayor Hidalgo was elected. We put forward a total of 15 projects that the City of Paris could fund with a budget of €20m, and citizens were invited to vote for the projects they believed best deserved the investment. We launched an online vote and also provided ballot boxes for traditional voting.

It was the first time that the City of Paris had put forward an online vote on such a large scale. We received over 41,000 votes – 60 per cent of which came through the internet. In all Parisians approved nine of 15 projects – and we’ll get started on implementing some of them as early as April this year.

This January, we launched the Participatory Budget in full. We now have a longer timescale to get even more citizens excited about the project. Crucially, the project ideas will come from citizens themselves. We’re also allocating more money: a total of €65m. Each year we will set aside a little more – the idea being that, between 2014 and 2020, we will have allocated a total of €500m to projects imagined and chosen by the public.

The most popular topics include public space, and the way we design and use it

Parisians – including international residents of the city – were invited to submit their project ideas, online or in dedicated spaces in Paris, between 15 January and 15 March this year. There is no limit or restriction to the kind of projects that citizens suggest, as long as they concern the general public interest and capital expenditure.

So far, we have received over 2,800 project suggestions. The most popular topics include public space, and the way we design and use it; mobility and ways of combatting pollution; and bringing the countryside to Paris – not just planting trees and plants, but creating urban farms with animals and crop cultivation. We’ve also had a lot of suggestions linked to the way we live together, with calls for more spaces that mix generations and cultures through activities such as cooking, dance and games. We’ve also received many suggestions devoted to the arts and sport.

Now entries have closed, the city government will group together the propositions that are similar, and contact the people who suggested them to let them know. We’ll eliminate only the projects that are not technically feasible, or suggestions that involve spaces that don’t belong to the City of Paris (for example, the Paris public transport system). Engineers will spend two months studying all the proposals and will group together the similar viable projects.

The idea is that, by June 2015, we’ll have put all the possible projects online for Parisians to look at over the summer, online and in local Town Halls. We’ll also invite the people who submitted ideas to take an active part in the communications campaign around their project. The public vote will happen in September and the final selection forward for the annual vote of the City Council, which always happens in December. The idea is that we’ll be able to launch the final projects in 2016.

The idea of the participatory budget isn’t new. We looked at projects that had already been led in New York, Lisbon, in Porto Alegre, Brazil and in other areas of France.

Most of all, we were inspired by activities happening locally, in Paris. Some local councillors had already introduced small participatory budgets of sorts. So we brought together these different elements, taking inspiration from abroad and from Paris, to create something that corresponded well with the mentality of French citizens, and to Parisians in particular.

It’s also important to remember that next year, we won’t do the same thing as we did this year, because we’re still testing things out. We’ll apply lessons we learn along the way – and incorporate the feedback we receive from citizens – to constantly improve what we’re doing.

Other cities – in France and beyond – are taking inspiration from our project. This is mainly because of its scale: the amount of money we’re devoting, and the 2.2m Parisians that could potentially get involved.

It’s also an important step in the way in which the City collaborates with citizens. Technology has played a crucial role in our success – particularly social media and Twitter. For example, when Mayor Hidalgo tweeted last year, we immediately received a peak in voting. In addition, thanks to social media, many more 30-somethings are engaging with the project – a demographic that we do not usually see at public meetings. Of course, physical meetings are still important for engaging older citizens, as well as children, who are also allowed to vote. Physical meetings are also vital for helping us build collective projects that match Parisians’ expectations and needs. The project really does touch the whole of Paris.

For me, the most important aspect of the Participatory Budget is the fact that it reinforces a sense of community. It is fostering closer interaction between citizens of different ages, origins, modes of living – reminding us that, despite our different ambitions and outlooks, we are all part of a community and citizens of one shared place. For us – the public institutions – our future challenge will be to re-think certain ways of working and to seek to put in place more projects, more quickly, that build a stronger link with citizens.

Pauline Véron is Deputy Mayor of Paris, and is in charge of local democracy, citizen participation, NGOs, youth and employment.

This article was based upon an interview conducted by Marina Bradbury, Director of Communications at the New Cities Foundation. It was originally posted on the think tank's website.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.