If you had a seven-figure sum to spare for your community, what would you bankroll with it?
That’s the question Somerville officials are asking residents this year, as the city continues to forge ahead with a new participatory budgeting program similar to one in nearby Cambridge.
And the prospect of how to spend $1 million of municipal cash has got many people dreaming up the whole gamut of possibilities: Additional green space? Markers commemorating city history? More pedestrian-friendly streets and public restrooms? A tool-lending library?
The list goes on.
When a citywide vote on the matter is held next month, locals as young as 12 years old will be able to cast a ballot in the unique spending process, the first of its kind for the city.
Somerville’s move to give citizens a direct say about which projects to spend money on embraces a practice that’s gained global popularity in the last three decades.
Participatory budgeting was first introduced in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, and has since spread to thousands of cities worldwide. Closer to home, Cambridge will launch its 10th cycle of participatory budgeting this fall, while Boston is working to establish a program of its own.
Somerville earmarked $1 million of its $293 million 2023 fiscal year budget for the city’s foray into participatory budgeting last summer. After a working group devised plans for the inaugural process last fall, the city turned to residents in March for their input on how the money should be spent.
Nearly 1,000 ideas — suggestions that ranged from buried power lines, vertical gardens, and pothole fixes, to pickleball courts, an outdoor meditation space, and even rat control — poured in over a two-month period, populating an online map with space for public commentary.
“The most direct goal is to get these projects out in the community and to show folks that they have power and they have a voice,” said the city’s budget analyst, Megan Huckenpahler, who is leading the new initiative.
Residents ages 12 and older will exercise their power beyond the brainstorming phase starting Sept. 13, when voting begins on a slate of 20 potential one-time projects that were shortlisted this summer by a group of volunteers.
Of that batch, which were chosen based on their feasibility, need, and expected impact, voters will rank their top five choices. Once ballots are counted, the city will finance as many of the most popular projects as the budget affords.
“It could be 10 ideas, it could be seven, it could be four,” Huckenpahler said.
Winning proposals will later be announced by Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, with work on those plans set to commence in October.
“Everybody is really interested in making this a successful and fun process, and making sure that it’s representative of the city,” said Hannah LeBlanc, an MIT graduate student and city volunteer.
LeBlanc said she was especially excited about idea submissions requesting additional shade structures in public spaces, which could bolster the city’s “climate resiliency.”
Somerville’s fledgling program follows in the footsteps of the one in Cambridge, according to Huckenpahler, who said many Somerville residents were already familiar with participatory budgeting thanks to that city’s version of the process.
“The general awareness of it has been super helpful,” she said. “We got great tips and tricks from them.”
Jackson Price, Cambridge’s principal budget analyst and participatory budgeting manager, said the city hopes to make its 10th iteration of the initiative “extra special” this year.
Last year, more than 8,700 Cantabrigians voted on how their city would allocate $1 million — a record turnout, up 15 percent from the previous year. Eight ideas won backing, including planting of trees, purchasing new technology for youth centers, installing electric vehicle charging stations, and expanding outdoor Wi-Fi.
“People respond positively when you give them a platform to set the agenda on issues that are important to them,” Price said. “That’s what participatory budgeting does.”