Podcast: Participatory Budgeting in Vallejo

by Alex Schafran


Source: Participatory Budgeting Project

First adopted in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to engage residents in generating solutions to severely unequal living conditions, participatory budgeting has become a popular tool for direct democracy around the world. In 2012, Vallejo, Calif., a highly diverse industrial city on the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, became the first U.S. municipality to fully adopt participatory budgeting.



Join me for a conversation with the Participatory Budget Project's Vallejo Community Engagement Coordinator Ginny Browne and Executive Director Josh Lerner on the potential in participatory budgeting for strengthening democracy and improving the quality of life in cities.



Online in Public Space

by Anja Wolf



Studying at a cafe recently, I noticed that most of the people around me were sitting alone in front of computers. Others had come to meet and talk, but the majority were focused on their screens. It seems that computers, phones and other devices have not only influenced our concentration capacity but also our behavior in public. We often appreciate sitting in active places but remain absorbed in our digital worlds.



Digital devices have become what sociologist Erving Goffman called "involvement shields," which can discourage interaction with others in public. It's as if we're logged into Facebook with Chat turned off: we're able to see what's happening around us without being available for social exchange.

In response to online isolation, ambient social networking apps like Highlight and Sonar are making people more accessible in public. Unlike Foursquare, which focuses on places, these apps provide information about the people around us. You could be sitting in a cafe and receive updates when "someone interesting" is nearby. The Bump app allows users to exchange information by clicking their phones together, playing with the possibilities for chance encounters in the video below.



So the devices we hide behind in cafes could do the opposite, broadcasting information designed to increase spontaneous meetings with friends and even strangers. While this could be an unwanted distraction, it could also enrich the lives of those who choose to reduce the boundaries around their private sphere. After all, is it not the meetings we least expect that tend to be the most interesting?

Anja Wolf, originally from Sweden, studies landscape architecture at the College of Art in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Credits: Photos by Anja Wolf.

+ share

Urban Agriculture in Caracas

by Teresa García Alcaraz


Green space in and around San Agustín. Source: Metro Cable San Agustín

San Agustín, a parish in Caracas, Venezuela, is known for open plots of land where the hillside is too steep for habitation. A group of activists led by artist Natalya Critchley and Rogue Architecture has been working there with school children on urban development projects. Based on a study of local terrain, they've started building garden plots for fresh produce to help reduce the burden of an extremely high cost of living.


Gardening as a school program. Source: Natalya Critchley and Rogue Architecture

Using repurposed pipes from a broken McDonald's jungle gym, the group recently built a small allotment next to an elementary school in San Agustín. Colorful plastic tubes became planters and composting containers filled with biodegradable waste from around the playground. The project included urban agriculture workshops aimed at developing the skills needed to build and maintain the garden. Student groups took responsibility for tending each container.



On Avenida Mexico in central Caracas, next to Bellas Artes Station, there is a quarter-hectare lot where chards, beets, lettuce and other products are grown without chemicals and sold at affordable prices. It is part of a government initiative called AgroVenezuela, which was set up to strengthen local agriculture and reduce poverty. It helps promote urban food production by converting "idle" spaces into productive gardens.


Urban agriculture in central Caracas. Source: Leo Ramírez

Other groups in Caracas grow produce without help from the government. In the Puerta Verde neighborhood, residents created a garden where retirees and volunteers care for flowers and vegetables. It started with the idea of planting herbs for home remedies and soon became a kind of community center. The group uses freely available resources like tires, gabions and plastic bottles to create architecture, including a natural irrigation system. They also help promote recycling and food sovereignty in the neighborhood.


A small orchard in Puerta Verde. Source: Teresa García Alcaraz

In oil-rich Venezuela, gas is heralded as "cheaper than water" and agriculture makes up only 3.7 percent of G.D.P. Corresponding dependence on global food production is especially high in cities. As younger generations loose the skills to grow their own produce, the economic and ecological advantages of local agriculture are not easily reclaimed. Efforts in Caracas to develop these skills through education, policy and grassroots creativity can serve as inspiration in other parts of the world where food production is becoming a lost tradition.

+ share

Developing an Ecosystem for Social Enterprise

by Melanie Friedrichs

Cities around the world are struggling with unemployment, troubled school systems, violence and environmental degradation. Government welfare programs and traditional charitable organizations have been throwing money at the same problems for years. Business initiatives and private sector growth help the few, but leave the many exposed to the perils of the free market. How can cities create sustainable, equitable growth?


Students of the Afghan Institute of Learning, a social enterprise that provides education and health services to over 350,000 women and children each year. Source: Ashoka

Social enterprise is a compelling answer. Unite market and mission with organizations that work to address social, environmental and economic problems through earned-income strategies. Target root causes and seek structural change through innovative solutions to old problems. The dream of social enterprise has captured hearts in many fields, appearing in books like "How to Change the World," by David Bornstein, and features like "Faces of Social Entrepreneurship" in the New York Times Magazine.

But wait, there's a catch: starting a successful social enterprise isn't easy. Funding is especially challenging because such ventures don't qualify for grants from many charitable foundations or offer the profit potential sought by investors. They also don't quite fit within current legal systems. While best practices for starting a business or non-profit have been tested for years, experience-based advice for mixed models is rare. Infrastructure for meeting the needs of social entrepreneurs is still in formation.


Social enterprise ecosystem builders. Source: Melanie Friedrichs

Social enterprises need a fertile "ecosystem" to grow, including:
  • capital: innovative funding mechanisms
  • advocacy: initiatives to raise awareness
  • incubation: tailored mentorship and training
  • network: opportunities to collaborate and scale
  • education: support for young social entrepreneurs
This takes concerted effort and collaboration from a wide range of players, but success can turn the dream of social enterprise into a powerful driver of economic development.


The 2012 SEEED Summit. Source: Brown Daily Herald

The Social Enterprise Ecosystems for Economic Development (SEEED) Summit is a national conference that brings social entrepreneurs together with related actors to share experience and ideas. SEEED aims to build a national ecosystem and support local ecosystems, encouraging students, academics, professionals and anyone interested in learning more to attend.

Last year, the first SEEED Summit featured talks by Diana Wells, president of Ashoka, Michael Brown, co-founder and CEO of City Year, and Christopher Gergen, president of Bull City Forward. This year we'll hear from Ira Magaziner, president of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Carla Javits, president of the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), and many other exciting participants.


The 2013 SEEED Summit takes place on April 26-27 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Details and registration are available at seeed.org.

+ share