A democratic experiment is underway in the leafy Brussels suburb of Auderghem. Local residents have been given the opportunity to decide how to spend more than €500,000 of the municipal budget.
I spoke with Sophie de Vos, First Alderwoman in the Auderghem municipal council responsible for public spaces, mobility, culture and citizens’ participation. She told me that Auderghem’s shared budget aimed to reconnect people with politics, and to restore trust in local democracy.
The idea is not entirely new. Participatory budgeting first emerged in Brazil in the late 1980s and there have been a few experiments in European cities like Paris and Madrid, as well as Belgium’s German-speaking community. But Auderghem’s scheme stands out in terms of the proportion of funding involved (10% of the municipality’s extraordinary budget, €15 per inhabitant). The municipality has also gone out of its way to engage young people by opening up the initiative to all residents over the age of 10.
2022 will see work begin on 31 projects that were selected following a public vote. The shared budget initiative was launched in March 2021 with a call for proposals that generated almost 400 ideas. These were narrowed down to a shortlist of 61 projects that garnered some 36,000 votes in total. The final list of winners was revealed in early December. The council is also looking into the possibility of providing additional funding for some activities that didn’t make the final cut.
In line with Auderghem’s reputation as a green municipality, many of the selected projects have an environmental focus. Nesting boxes will be installed for different species of birds. Plants will be distributed to attract bees and other pollinators. Trees will be planted in public spaces and streets throughout the commune.
Other projects aim to support cultural activities, social integration and connections between local people. For example, two rickshaws will be used by volunteers to offer elderly and disabled people rides around green spaces like Rouge Cloître and the Forêt de Soignes. An intergenerational allotment will be managed jointly by pupils from a local school and residents from an old folks’ home. And a covered bandstand is due to be constructed as a venue for open-air concerts and other cultural events.
A citizens’ assembly made up of 100 Auderghem residents living in different neighbourhoods has overseen the shared budget project. The members of the assembly were chosen using the “stratified sampling” method in order to ensure gender balance and to reflect the municipality’s population in terms of age, profession and educational background.
Like other parts of Brussels, Auderghem is home to a diverse international population. Around one-third of local residents are non-Belgian, including several European nationalities as well as a sizeable Japanese community linked to the school in Beaulieu.
When I spoke to Sophie de Vos, she stressed that the shared budget initiative was open to all residents of the municipality, irrespective of their origin or nationality. As long as they could prove that they lived in the commune, anyone over the age of 10 could propose ideas and vote on the shortlisted projects. Unlike municipal elections, there was no need for people to be on the electoral register in order to participate.
Expats in Brussels can sometimes feel disconnected from their local communities and public life. Initiatives like Auderghem’s shared budget can help to bridge that gap by providing opportunities to share ideas and have a say in local politics.
Auderghem residents who missed this year’s call should keep their eyes open for the next edition (which is expected in 2023). And if you live in another part of town, you might want to see if your municipal council is planning to organise anything similar.