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Crowd-Funding The Future City

31/08/2016 15:59

If you've ever walked along New York City's High Line, you'll know just how wonderful it is. The 2.4-kilometre park is built on an elevated section of disused New York railroad in Manhattan's West Side. Planted with wild vegetation and designed to pay homage to the structure's past, it's rightly become the second most visited attraction in the city. It's even more popular than the Statue of Liberty.

An intriguing aspect of the High Line is the way it was funded. Unlike most urban projects, the initial funding for the High Line came from local residents who saw potential in developing the structure rather than demolishing it. It's a wonderful example of crowdfunding -- the form of alternative finance where everyday people contribute funds to projects they think are promising -- which has more recently been made popular by websites like KickStarter and IndieGoGo.

Crowdfunding is increasingly being applied in an urban context. In the UK, Spacehive, has been set up to source crowdfunding specifically for civic projects.

Future Cities Catapult has been working with Spacehive and I'm impressed by what it's doing. The platform has been used to turn a motorway flyover in central Liverpool into a sky park, fund a public wi-fi network in the town of Mansfield, create an urban farm from the grounds of an abandoned school in North London, and save a derelict Grade II dispensary in Manchester as a creative hub. They even provided funding to build a temporary water slide in Bristol.

Crowdfunding is a natural solution to a very real problem. Citizens are often keen to shape their local surroundings, but the process can feel incredibly daunting, not least because it can be difficult to obtain funding, be it private or public. And without firm funding, the rest of the constraints -- from complex planning regulations to changing policies under a government elected every five years - can be overwhelming. Citizens can, and do, feel isolated and powerless to change.

Instead, crowdfunding provides citizens with a chance to engage. To me, it feels like a truly bottom-up approach, that harnesses the voice of the people to build community, share ideas, secure funding, and make what they want in their neighbourhood a reality.

For cities themselves there are obvious benefits too. As well as providing citizens with an alternative means of developing small-scale infrastructure -- effectively freeing the city authority to spend money on other city-wide projects while still benefiting from local initiatives -- it provides an opportunity for them to experiment with new funding models and trial new ideas in ways that weren't previously possible. City authorities can be part of experiments that help them test and learn more quickly.

It's not necessarily all positive, of course. Looking back to the High Line, the initial funding came from affluent and well-connected local residents, who were able to encourage the likes of then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to support the project. Civic crowdfunding platforms may draw ideas and funding from those that have the ideas and the money to spare. Certain voices may be heard and certain issues may be tackled, with the associated risk of overlooking the opinions and needs of the more marginalized sections of society.

That's not all there is to learn from the High Line. While it's given rise to somewhat of an urban renaissance in the West Side, sparking other development projects, it's also warped the local real estate market and even seen some local businesses close due to the changing demographics in the area. Projects undertaken by the community, rather than directed by city planners, may have unforeseen consequences.

Criticisms like these are valid. But the current system also has its faults. We can't assume that projects overseen by city authorities never overlook the marginalised or suffer from unforeseen outcomes themselves. In reality, these kinds of issues can be avoided by taking positive steps to ensure that the voices of the less fortunate are heard.

The problems, then, are at least surmountable. People increasingly want a hand in shaping more aspects of their cities, and crowdfunding is an interesting way for them to achieve it. I like to think of it as a kind grassroots urbanism. And while it will never be able to generate the funds required for large-scale infrastructure -- that will be left to government, private industry and real estate -- it should at least be able to calibrate, complement and improve our cities.

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