A “micro-forest” planted in Oxfordshire, England, was shown as an example of what could be planted in Cambridge with $85,000 in participatory budgeting funds. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

Cambridge wrapped up its annual participatory budgeting process Wednesday, awarding seven winning projects totaling $525,000. As in years past, the top proposals were about the environment; this year residents voted to bring “urban micro-forests” and “rain gardens” to the city.

Budget concerns from the city’s spending to address Covid-19 caused the overall pool of money to shrink this cycle from approximately $1 million, leaders of the process said during online meetings. But city officials suggested that the approximately $500,000 that was cut could be included in the next round.

Participatory budgeting lets residents decide directly how to spend part of the public budget. Started in Cambridge in 2014, the process has allocated more than $4.7 million for projects such as installing public restrooms, expanding public Wi-Fi and planting trees.

Each year the city starts the process by soliciting suggestions from the public, who submit ideas online or over the phone. In 2020-2021, more than 500 projects were suggested. Volunteers meet to vet the public submissions and edit them into fully fledged proposals – shifting online in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, with budget delegates meeting online via Zoom instead of in person starting in September. Finally, residents 12 and older vote for their favorites.

Between Jan. 4-9, a total of 7,250 people voted. This was the first cycle to include translations of the materials in seven languages in addition to English. To improve accessibility for those without a computer, the city opened a phone line for 60 hours for residents to register their votes by calling in.

This cycle’s winning proposals reflect a city concerned not just about climate change, but about pedestrian and bike safety, inclusivity and cleanliness. Officials said the city expects work to start in July on implementing the winning projects. If the past is any guide, some projects will take years to go through the planning, procurement, design and implementation process.

Winning proposals

These proposals are ordered by the number of votes received, with the descriptions from the participatory budgeting materials:

Urban micro-forests ($85,000): “Pockets of unique trees, densely planted at select locations throughout the city, will beautify, educate and help combat climate change. Approximately 50 trees will be planted with educational signage, bringing the forest into Cambridge.”

Rain gardens for resiliency ($120,000): “Rain gardens are engineered to use specific soil and plants that absorb and filter stormwater, and are a cost-effective, beautiful way to naturally clean runoff and protect from flooding.”

Bridging the digital divide ($95,000): “To help address digital equity, purchase 100 Chromebooks and 75 mobile hotspots (with a two-year subscription) for the Community Learning Center and public library to better serve their adult learners and borrowers.”

Bike signals at busy intersections ($40,000): “Navigating intersections can be confusing. Adding bike signals to busy intersections will help cyclists safely navigate intersections and make the roads more predictable and friendly for all.”

Keep Cambridge cleaner ($45,000): “Install six touchless, pest-resistant Big Belly trash and recycling compactors in most-needed areas. Solar-powered and more efficient than traditional bins, Big Bellies will be hands-free, reduce pests (like rats) and keep streets cleaner.”

Swinging into Inclusivity ($40,000): “Place several inclusive swing sets in parks to allow children with mobility disabilities to play with able-bodied children. This will take a stand against ableism by enabling kids of all abilities to play together.”

Pedestrian-Controlled Crosswalk Light ($100,000): “Install five pedestrian-controlled flashing lights at high-impact locations. Crosswalks without signals can be risky for pedestrians and confusing for both pedestrians and drivers.”