Malia Lazu

Participatory budgeting is defined as a democratic process that gives the community a voice in how part of the public budget is allocated and spent. What began in Brazil as an anti-poverty initiative has spread globally for state, county, city, housing, school and other budgets. Boston has an Office of Participatory Budgeting and a token allocation, but given the size and scope of our municipal spending, much more needs to be done.

Several organizations, including the Boston-based Center for Economic Democracy, have been pressing the city of Boston to allocate $40 million, out of the city’s $4.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2025, for projects and specific needs of communities – and to give the community a say in how to spend that money. Currently, Mayor Michelle Wu’s office proposes only $1.4 million to participatory budgeting – less than in previous years.

The Better Budget Alliance, a coalition of several Boston-based nonprofits, recently delivered about 550 messages from Bostonians and a letter signed by 44 leaders across multiple sectors to city officials. The alliance is urging Mayor Wu to direct more funds to participatory budgeting and other community initiatives as a show of support for grassroots democracy.

Participatory budgeting is putting money where the community’s mouths are. It is an investment, particularly in working-class communities of color across our city, which too often see a lack of investment and deterioration of neighborhoods. At the other extreme, development is a synonym for displacement. Participatory budgeting helps to make our communities healthier, safer, greener and more sustainable.

Importantly, participatory budgeting is not about giving everyone what they want. Rather, it’s about tapping into the wisdom and perspective of the collective. It invites people into a responsible process, and allows the city of Boston to partner with a network of community groups and nonprofits that have an ear to the ground and the best interest of local communities at heart. If government and business want to further the cause of democracy, participatory budgeting is the avenue – not the roadblock.

Why It Matters to Real Estate

Boston’s real estate development community, in particular, would do well to get behind participatory budgeting, particularly now when more scrutiny is being put on their local involvement and community relationship-building. If developers are serious about getting closer to the communities in which they invest, a show of support for participatory budgeting would go a long way toward demonstrating that commitment.

Think about it – a few messages to the city from some of the biggest and most powerful developers would certainly get the attention of the Office of Participatory Budgeting. And it’s not even money out of those developers’ pockets.

Like all good relationships, it works both ways. Through support of the participatory budgeting process, developers can help carry the needs and desires of the local community to city authorities. In turn, as the local community sees the sincerity of developers in recognizing their priorities, they are more likely to become sounding boards and support community-friendly development.

Of course, there is pushback – as there is any time a small group with wealth and power is threatened by the inclusion of the bigger, more diverse majority. But please give some thought to how much healthier and progressive our city can become by empowering a diverse community of residents and local business leaders with a bigger say in our neighborhoods.

Where It’s Worked Well

For those who find comfort in precedent, there are case studies from third parties that demonstrate the success of participatory budgeting as a process that solicits ideas from the community, weighs the proposals, and ultimately decides to fund projects that reflect the priorities and greatest good in the community. For example, Chicago’s 40th ward uses participatory budgeting to address infrastructure project proposals from residents and community committees.

Imagine Boston being the next case study and not with a token amount, but with significant investment of city funding directed to projects and initiatives that reflect the will and the needs of the local communities. At a time when Mayor Wu’s office continues to press for more equitable development and community building, such as through the revamping of the Boston Planning & Development Agency, participatory budgeting can reflect and complement those goals.

It’s time for our voices to be heard as well. See the Take Action page on the Better Budget Alliance site,, to send a message. Or, better yet, convey support through your own relationships within city government and other official channels. By advancing the cause of participatory budgeting in Boston, you can show your desire to truly empower and listen to local communities.

In other words, here is a chance to not just talk about it – but truly be about it.

Malia Lazu is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group, former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank and the author of “From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity.”

Participatory Budgeting Puts the Money Where People’s Mouths Are

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min