Dozens of community members gathered on a cloudy Saturday morning at Hillsboro’s Shute Park Library to help change the future of their neighborhood’s outdoor areas.
People, young and old, recorded stories about how they engage with nature and reflected on outdoor spaces that brought them joy. Others chatted with landscape architects while placing sticky notes and smiley faces (or frowns) on images of pollinator gardens, accessible spaces and other natural areas, indicating their favored types of projects. And a kids table, littered with miniature trees, sticks, pinecones, wooden figurines and corks, participants built pint-size dream parks that may one day become real places.
The gathering was the first of two in-person idea-generating workshops for Metro’s Nature in Neighborhoods community choice grants, a long-awaited participatory grantmaking project that gives community members a direct say in shaping the parks and natural areas in the their communities.
Through the community choice grants process, which will run through several stages over the next year, up to $2 million will be awarded throughout Washington County’s District 4 for parks and nature projects imagined and chosen by the people who live there.
Though this type of process has been talked about for a long time, said Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District grants and enrollment specialist Jen Shih, it’s taken years to finally implement.
“There’s been a lot of interest in community participatory budgeting and community really being involved from the design-end of projects over the past decade, but I actually haven’t seen this put into practice where the community is engaged from the very inception of project development,” Shih said. “I’m personally really excited to see a process that involves community from the very beginning.”
The Nature in Neighborhoods community choice grant program was created when voters across greater Portland passed the 2019 parks and nature bond measure. The bond called on Metro to pilot a grants program modeled on participatory budgeting, a direct-democracy way of establishing community priorities created in South America.
Metro’s Nature in Neighborhoods grants go back the mid-1990s and have progressively brought community groups closer and closer to the center of the grants, so a participatory approach was a logical next step.
The community choice grants allow anyone in the region to pitch their idea for a parks and nature project. Then anyone in the region 11 years old or older gets to vote for their favorite projects.
Having community at the center is what makes this process so special, said City of Hillsboro project specialist Kevin Hughes.
“The participatory budgeting process is a really unique slant on this project,” Hughes said. “When you think about government, this is not the thing that you think about. It’s really an effort to cut out the middle person and break down barriers and let people come and discuss what they want and then how it’s been built and implemented in different areas.”
And although the idea-gathering stage is just starting, this project has been community-centered from the beginning, Hughes said.
“A call went out to community almost two years ago to be engaged in this process to help build the structure of the guidebook and the grant program, Hughes said. “Community members were selected for lived, work or cultural experience or perspective and were brought in and built the grant program from the ground up…I started on as a volunteer because I saw that call to the community because it’s such a novel opportunity.”
Without that community-first approach, the program wouldn’t look the way it does.
"Community members have met twenty times over the past two years to design and lead the grant funding process and program guidelines,” said Crista Gardner, a Nature in Neighborhoods grant program manager. “I am constantly inspired and amazed by their dedication, thoughtfulness, and creativity to adapt the participatory process models to the community needs of the Portland area.”
Over the next month, ideas and feedback will be collected both online and at another in-person event in Tualatin. After ideas have been gathered, community members, design advocates and staff from local cities and park districts will begin working together to make those community idea submissions into viable project concepts.
The projects will be brought to community members for two rounds of votes. The first by folks living in District 4 and the second by anyone living in greater Portland.
By the end of the year, recommendations will be sent to Metro Council and awarded