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Funding Great Public Spaces Doesn't Need to Be an Olympian Effort

Posted: 14/05/2012 00:00

Whatever your view on the Olympics, there's no doubt that east London is being transformed. Huge swathes of private investment from firms like Westfield and Lend Lease have created hundreds of homes and shops, while the Emirates Air Line is already shuttling cable cars through the sky.

But one landmark you won't find on any investment plans - or even Google Maps for that matter - is Cody Dock, a former gasworks on the River Lea, lying derelict between Canary Wharf and the Olympic Park.

Whilst billions have been spent neatly coiffuring the nearby Park, the 150-year-old dock - built during Britain's industrial boom - sits in a neglected hinterland.

But now, a charity, with help from the actor and Poirot star David Suchet, wants to transform Cody Dock into a hub for artists and entrepreneurs. As well as creating studio space and a museum, opening up the dock will fulfil a ramblers' dream.

Suddenly people will be able to walk and cycle the full length of London's second river - from Hertfordshire, past the Olympic Stadium, to the new cable car on the Thames. Currently the route is blocked by the sealed dock.

Opening up 26 miles of walkway won't just delight ramblers. Regenerating Cody Dock will create moorings for 50 boats, 60 local jobs and bring with it a host of other opportunities - not to mention a variety of gardens and natural habitats for people to grow their own food.

Without a penny of public money, the charity is using Spacehive.com, the social business I founded earlier this year, to 'crowd-fund' the project. They're hoping the public and businesses will collectively ignite the first spark of regeneration in a forgotten part of the capital.

Spacehive.com is the first funding platform specifically designed for building public space projects. The aim is to enable anyone to improve their streets, parks and canals, and anyone to fund them. So whether it's unlocking a dock or building Britain's first cage cricket court, its a way of fuelling the sort of good ideas that planning bureaucracy often snuffs out.

Like Wikipedia, the 'crowd-funding' approach follows the principle that 'many hands make light work', with the burden spread across a mix of local people, businesses and councils.

Spacehive launched three months ago. Our first project was a £790,000 new community centre in the deprived ex-mining town of Glyncoch, south Wales. Facing the loss of their grants, the town raised the final £30k they needed from a mix of local people doing sponsored silences and corporate giants such as Tesco and Asda. It was a vibrant campaign, backed by Stephen Fry and the Welsh rugby captain, that energised the community and attracted contributions from as far as Patagonia.

The best thing about it wasn't the improbable group that came together to pull it off, it was the reaction from the locals who felt they'd been put on the map. They felt empowered. And they had fun.

While Spacehive.com is new, the notion of crowd-funding public spaces is not. Britain was doing it in Victorian times. Many of our greatest public spaces - including several large parks in Manchester - were funded through public subscription, as were plenty of statues and monuments in our towns and villages. We hope to revive that tradition, empowering communities to fund new parks and BMX tracks as easily as buying a book online.

People across the country are bursting with great ideas - whether they're sports club owners keen to build new facilities, talented architects with a vision for reviving an unloved street, or any one of millions who are itching to improve their area. But the current merry-go-round of planning meetings, consultations, fundraising rallies and paperwork often means the best ideas choke on bureaucracy before any dirt is shifted.

Spacehive.com cuts to the chase by letting people share the cost of the improvements they want. In return, those that pledge know they only get charged if the project goes ahead.

We're not looking to alleviate the state's responsibility to look after public space. But the reality is that the economic downturn means funding is drying up. And anyway councils don't always have the best ideas.

We need a smarter approach that taps private ideas and investment to improve our public spaces in a way that people can engage with. Few of us actually attend the planning meetings that shape where we live. But with the web we can make projects like Cody Dock happen with a few clicks.

It's a model which the charity behind the project is testing right now. With £82k to raise by 6th June their timetable is ambitious. But with Hercule Poirot on the case and a host of global businesses in Canary Wharf, they might just make it.

To help them get there visit www.spacehive.com/codydock

 
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