Shared decision-making in the city: Tartu’s masterplan and participatory budget

Tartu, Estonia’s second city has long been known as a city of start-ups, where municipal support from the City of Tartu, the pioneering digital strategy of Estonia, and the focus of Tartu University on digitalisation created a strong digital ecosystem. Besides dot-com companies, this constellation has also generated a number of digital solutions to foster civic engagement and involve different stakeholders in policy development, both from civil society and the local municipality. In the past years, urban planning and budgetary issues have been identified as priority topics where citizen engagement would bring the biggest impact, involving the local municipality, the IT community, civil society organisations and active citizens. Tartu’s involvement in the URBACT action planning network Interactive Cities has helped the municipality to find new methods of  engagement for these processes.

Tartu has recently created a new city development masterplan. For the Tartu Municipality, an administration with a strong focus on citizen participation and a long-term engagement with the digital transition, this was an occasion to call for proposals and suggestions from the side of citizens and community groups. Tartu’s new masterplan is a practical example of a public engagement process that involves extensive discussions and the sharing of information with citizens.

Masterplans are usually too abstract to attract any real interest from citizens: they usually consist of a heavy text of hundreds of pages and a series of maps that not many people can read functionally. However, masterplans are crucial documents for cities and for citizens as they direct new developments, change neighbourhoods and effect citizens’ lives in all possible ways. The Tartu Municipality decided to make this process more comprehensible and participated: “The trick is how to translate the complicated text and maps to something that people can understand and feel they have really something to say about it – and to translate it in a way that it is still the same text and that you don’t simplify so it doesn’t become misleading,” highlights Jarno Laur, former Deputy Mayor of Tartu, who directed the participatory masterplanning process.

The key to adding a participatory dimension to the masterplan was to use all kinds of technology to involve people more in the process. As well as official invitations to the public and announcements of the plan, the municipality also made a campaign that featured statues of important people of Tartu asking different questions about the future of the city from each other and from citizens.

“We asked the same questions that normally people ask about the future of the city and we did it a funny way, just to have people share it on Facebook and social media,” Jarno Laur explains the municipality’s communication strategy. “We also had nice posters displayed in the streets, giving the process an official feel, and used all the possibilities to spread the word, through the city’s social media accounts and our personal Facebook pages, trying to get more fun into the process and get local newspapers intrigued. If you are making a masterplan there is certainly intrigue in that.”

All this communication effort fed into the masterplan. The municipality created a special subpage for the whole process within the city’s website; they decided not to have any paper copies as they normally use only digital documents. They created a special digital map that contained all relevant information and made obvious the main points the municipality wanted to make with the document. In Estonia, a masterplan normally includes 20 or 30 different paper maps.

Tartu’s masterplan used different information layers instead, so that everybody can switch them off or on and they can compose map that they will use. For example, in a normal masterplan, there is no way to combine separate maps of main roads, bicycle roads, schools or social infrastructure; the digital masterplan allows users to switch and combine the different maps, understanding, for instance, how schools and bicycle roads interact spatially, making it easier for citizens to understand better the city’s functioning. In this way, citizens can use the masterplan focused on the specific issues they are personally interested in. For instance, with the digital masterplan, users can easily identify the protected buildings in their own neighbourhood:“You can zoom in to your own house, you can understand what is going on with your plot and the neighbouring area.”

Adding different maps to a unique digital masterplan requires significant coordination within the municipality: all data connected to the localities and all maps in the municipal offices are based on the same platform and function as layers on the city map. Many city departments are involved in this process. While in every department there are officials who are fluent in the map’s language, the planning, education and communal services departments are the heaviest users of the maps, and a person in the municipality’s IT department manages the data system and helps other departments to use the map. For Jarno Laur, having a single platform for all the data is an important achievement: “Before we used to have different applications for different things: street lighting had its own map, program and platform and the masterplan was in a totally different format – it was not going to work. You need to decide on one platform.”

The masterplan-website also contains a lot of open data. The beauty of the Estonian administrative system is that most data is made public. If one is curious of a parcel, after registering online, one can identify the owner. If someone wants to know what the neighbour is planning to build, one just needs to go to the national construction register where all issued permits and related data are accessible.

The masterplanning procedures are set by law. The municipality is obliged to keep at least six weeks for public debate, with a discussion before and another one after this period. Instead of two, the municipality organised twelve debates, after sending a leaflet listing the most important issues of the new masterplan to every postbox in Tartu and inviting citizens to discuss these issues. Public discussions, helped by neighbourhood organisations, ranged from traffic, protected areas and accessibility to the challenges of particular neighbourhoods.

The most innovative dimension of the masterplan, however, is not the digital maps, open data or the public consultations. It is the interactivity of the masterplanning process. As an experiment, the municipality used a map of the city for gathering ideas, for example, if someone would propose a playground to a certain area, or a beach to the riverside but does not know if this topic is relevant for a masterplan. By introducing interactivity into masterplanning, the map turned into a forum where anyone could propose ideas with only a few words, visible to everyone. As Jarno Laur explains, the aims of connecting separate ideas with the possibilities of the masterplan was to lower the barriers of participation in the planning process: “We had more than 100 ideas collected this way that would normally not be presented because the official way, the process of applying for amendments of the masterplan are complicated. We tried to lower the barriers for people simply to submit their idea and the rest is up to officials. I must say most of their ideas were great. I was a bit afraid that if you give this type of opportunity they will be more or less about being against something. Usually people are against something but this time it was surprisingly constructive.”  

Processing the proposed ideas is similar to how participatory budgeting works. Proposals by citizens are indicators of problems, ideas and possibilities. The municipality gathers the suggestions and make a decision on every proposal: they can be included in the masterplan, or not, where the topic is not related to the masterplan or if it is not applicable, for example. Many of the ideas put forward on the platform are later discussed locally, among neighbourhood committees that decide whether to support a proposal or not.

Neighbourhoods with fierce discussion or ideas with many supporters and opponents signal to the municipality areas that need more attention. Discussing ideas means another level of interactivity in the process that can be designed and enhanced by further developing the platform: “I think next time we will also give a chance to everybody to evaluate the ideas of others. This time the idea was to put suggestions on the map, people could read but couldn’t react to it, next time we will make it more like Facebook, so that you can hate or like the idea and we can get more feedback.”

All the proposals get an official reply. Many of the ideas proposed, including various types of public space, playgrounds or beaches, then get included in the masterplan, but this is not the only impact of this process: “It was really good input for us to see that when we are making the budgeting for the coming years, we can emphasise more precisely what people are interested in. In that sense the masterplan works exactly the same way as the participatory budget because the idea of the budget is of course to implement great ideas but it is also important to have a feedback about where the problems are,” underlines Jarno Laur.

Tartu’s masterplanning process – similarly to the Development Strategy “Tartu 2030” – could indeed rely on the city’s experience in participatory budgeting. The city’s Participatory Budgeting initiative made Tartu a pioneer in public-civic cooperation in Estonia and the whole region. “It is a democratic process where citizens can directly decide how to spend a part of the public money: They make real decisions about real money,” explains Lilian Lukka, manager of communication and participatory budgeting in the Tartu Municipality. In Tartu, citizens can decide how the city government should spend 150.000 euros, an equivalent of almost 1% of the city’s investment budget.

Tartu has implemented Participatory Budgeting since 2013. In the programme’s 4 years, it has provided a remarkable opportunity for citizens to express their ideas what they want to change or improve or meet in their city. Every year the two most voted ideas are brought into reality by the municipality. Tartu has three goals with participatory budgeting: “We would like to improve the understanding of the city budget and the processes that shape it. The second aim is to improve cooperation between communities and the third goal is to do something practical, for instance installing benches in parks and similar interventions,” highlights Lukka. Besides these aims, another “side-benefit” is that the local government gets a lot of important background information about the trends and wishes or problems of citizens. Many ideas the citizens put forward in the participative budgeting processes are also followed and investigated by the municipality after the Participatory Budgeting process.

Like in many other cities involved in Participatory Budgeting, digital tools are an important but not exclusive elements of the process. The crowdsourcing of ideas is done via a special online platform where Tartu residents can present their ideas but elderly or less tech-savvy citizens are not excluded from the process either: “everybody is free to come to the town hall with a piece of paper and an idea written on it,” underlines Kristina Reinsalu, Programme Director of the e-Democracy at the Estonian e-Governance Academy.

Every year, the process usually starts in April and ends in October with voting. It begins with crowdsourcing ideas from citizens, whether using online tools or traditional ways. Then comes the expertise phase where not only city government experts but also external experts, architects, engineers consolidate ideas and group them based on topics, to avoid the repetition of proposals.

The only criteria to accept or disqualify proposals is not if an idea is good or bad, but if its realisation is feasible for the available budget, that is, 75.000 euros per proposal or if it violates any legal restrictions. The land where ideas are proposed should be city owned. The general criteria for ideas is that they should aim at investment, creating material, practical objects, accessible 24 hours for everyone in the public space. Once the experts have consolidated and grouped the ideas, face-to-face deliberation events are organised, where all authors of ideas and relevant experts are invited. This event does not only serve the discussion of the proposals but also their contextualisation within the city’s plans. “This is the most educative stage of the process,” explains Kristina Reinsalu, “where we don’t only talk about the ideas put forward but also about the plans the city has for the given year, about detailed planning and many related issues.”

After these discussions, authors have the possibility to revamp their ideas and only then comes the voting phase when citizens directly vote over the ideas, through the municipality’s special e-voting system or at traditional polling stations. The final decision made by citizens through voting is binding for the council. “The process is designed this way, it is a legal act saying that there is no way that the city council can decide not to support a project voted by citizens,” adds Reinsalu.

After the decision, two winning ideas are implemented by the city each year. Unlike in other participatory mechanisms, or participatory budgeting in other cities, the implementation is the responsibility of the city. This is a conscious choice, clarifies Kristina Reinsalu: “NGOs have different options to apply projects but in this process we just wanted to crowdsource ideas and make citizens decide what is important but not make any burden for them to be implementors. But of course, they are monitoring: we have experienced that citizens are following very carefully the process, observing how quickly the city government implements a project.”

Digital communication and platforms are not only used to support collecting proposals and the deliberation process, but also in making those proposals known. The municipality hires experts to teach the authors of the ideas how to market their ideas. In a highly educative process, authors make better and better campaigns each year. As Kristina Reinsalu suggests, “we don’t think the city government can and should do the marketing for the ideas – so we encourage and train the authors and it works really well. Last year, two authors of winning ideas were both doing very active social media and physical campaign – they were coming to the town hall square to present their ideas during the voting period. We see that this strategy works very well and teaches citizens about how to promote ideas in general. Nobody knows that you have good ideas if you don’t say them out loud.”  

In the first year, the city government also had a significant budget for promoting the process itself. Since then, as Participatory Budgeting became known for many Tartu citizens, the city no longer needs to spend money on promoting it. When April comes citizens know already that the process will soon open and they will have the possibility to present their ideas. The municipality usually involves a marketing professor who is showing authors hints of how to do marketing with little money. In the municipality’s belief, “you don’t need to be rich to do smart things. Innovativeness comes when you don’t have much money.”

The Participatory Budgeting process has changed throughout the years and the experiences of the previous years inform both the organisers and the contestants. The first year was very encouraging for both the municipality and the community. A group of people, running a city-owned cultural centre with other civil society organisations, applied for funding to purchase a new audio and video equipment for the centre. It was one of the winning ideas and it got funded; now the centre organises film screenings and has become a centre of the alternative cinema scene, with many citizens benefiting from this. Other similar ideas included funding to help the repurposing of an old factory area that has transformed into a cultural and start-up area.

One would think that the visibility and success of the Participatory Budgeting process is marked by the number of proposals. However, the number of proposals did not grow exponentially with the years. On the contrary: in the first year, the municipality received 160 ideas while in the following years, less ideas were submitted but they were already discussed within communities and enjoyed the support of these communities. In the beginning people were more individualistic: even from the same neighbourhoods we received similar ideas submitted by different persons. In contrast, now there is more cooperation within proposals: “Now we see that the community interaction is stronger than before, people start talking about ideas in community, which was one of our main aims. Because Estonians tend to be individualistic and we rightly have the image of being reserved, cool, not so communicative – but this process has helped a bit.”

Ideas that are not selected are not lost. Many people who do not win funding at the first presentation of their proposals elaborate their ideas further for the following year, also integrating the feedback they receive on how to improve them – and then they submit their idea again. One of the 2017 winning ideas had already been submitted twice but only won at its third submission. In the same time, the city government also picks some ideas that are not winning and might find some other financing mechanisms to partly or fully realise them.

While citizens propose more participated and well-discussed ideas for the participatory budget, the voting turnout has not increased as much as expected. Voting participation has risen from 3.3% in 2013 to 5.2% in 2016 in the whole population eligible for vote (i.e. registered citizens starting from the age 16). While the city pays more attention to communication with citizens and the involvement process than in the programme’s first years, there are still important social groups that are not well represented in the proposals. “Our biggest concern at the moment is that young people are quite passive in this process. They have proposed too few ideas and were quite passive during voting periods,” explains

Lilian Lukka. The number of votes is indeed very low among teenagers (16-19 years old), 3.2% of all eligible voters, while youngsters in their twenties are also less active than other age groups.

Recognising youth abstention as a key challenge, the municipality began to focus on youth inclusion and reach out to various youth groups: “We have already met some representatives of youth organisations and collected some ideas and thoughts about how to improve this situation. Our main purpose this year is to attract more young people to be part of this process,” underlines Lilian Lukka.

Supported by the URBACT action planning network Interactive Cities, the municipality has been exploring new ways to reach youngsters through digital communication. On the one hand, reaching a specific audience is a question of using the right language and new communication channels like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Whatsapp or Snapchat: besides exploring social media communication with youngsters, Tartu also relies on existing digital tools like the crowdfunding platform Hooandja that helps youngsters develop, promote and realise their ideas or E-kool, a digital educational tool used in schools all across Estonia.

Accessing youth, on the other hand, it is a matter of involving the right influencers (teachers, youth workers, parents, idols, role models) or youth groups (computer gaming clubs, the Youth Council of Tartu, local cultural venues or the the city’s unemployment services that give trainings to youth to help them develop new ideas). The Tartu Municipality has chosen carefully its interlocutors towards teenagers and youngsters. “We contacted communication managers of youth organisations to involve them as mediators to approach young people. Another idea of our communication strategy is to try to get involved civic education teachers to have them teach how participatory democracy works. It could be a good showcase for teachers to present ideas and participate at participatory budgeting votes,” adds Kristina Reinsalu.

With the interactive masterplanning and the participatory budgeting processes, Tartu has explored new ways to involve citizens at various levels of decision-making. New forms of interaction require new forms of communication including digital platforms and social media whose easy access and particular language can lower the thresholds of participation in urban planning and budgetary decisions. The significance of these new interactions between municipality and citizens goes beyond urban planning and budgeting matters: they can be used for many inclusive and interactive decision-making processes, enhancing communication between various local stakeholders and strengthening inclusive urban governance.

Takeaways for other ciites

  1. Crowdsource knowledge and ideas from citizens: it can help administrations focus on areas and themes that really interest citizens.
  2. Connect abstract urban planning issues with the everyday experience of citizens: this will make them more involved in urban planning discussions.
  3. Open up data to citizens: they will find new uses and interpretations.
  4. Find the right language to address various social groups: it might be specific communication channels or influencers that help reaching them.
  5. Use participatory processes to strengthen local communities and interaction: it will help shifting conflicts towards consensus-based solutions.