by Paul Bailey
Crowdfunding actual urban projects, like bridges (done) or potholes (not yet), is a controversial idea – but one thing is clear: having movie stars on board is no guarantee of success
Helena Bonham Carter was effusive: “This project is so exciting!” She and her husband, Tim Burton, were celebrity supporters of what they trumpeted as a bold experiment in crowdfunding. Called the Invisible City, it was a plan to create three giant treehouses in Regent’s Park, London, which would act as platforms for culture, performance and debate – a world, as the press release put it, of “collaborative happenings”.
The creation of artists Claudia Moseley and Edward Shuster, the project sounded promising. There were discussions with the council, support from the Royal Parks and consultations with wildlife experts. The Evening Standard and Time Out covered the story, understandably lured by the glitz of Burton and Bonham Carter and by the idea that the Invisible City was attempting to raise the necessary funds – £500,000 – on Kickstarter. With the project claiming to have the community and “shared ideas” at its heart, surely crowdfunding was the way to go.
Crowdfunding actual civic projects – real, useful interventions in cities – isn’t necessarily anything new: just think of the number of church roof repairs funded by congregations. But in the digital age it is an idea gaining currency. One shining example is Luchtsingel, the “crowdfunded bridge” to connect a neglected neighbourhood in Rotterdam to the city centre. Members of the public could “sponsor”, or fund, a section of the 390m wooden pedestrian bridge. In exchange, they could customise their section – even just one plank – with a name, a wish or message to the city. The experiment was a success: Luchtsingel bridge will be finished this summer.
“Crowdfunding is a way of gathering an interested crowd just as much as collecting funds,” says Kate Stewart of Friends of the Flyover, which was formed to prevent the demolishing of a concrete flyover in Liverpool. In 2012, a report on the city proposed that the flyover be destroyed, at an estimated cost of £3m-4m. Stewart and her group decided it would be better to repurpose the flyover and in doing so regenerate the local area. They worked together with the local authority, institutions and businesses, but they also turned to the crowdfunding website SpaceHive.
Formed in 2011 with the express intent of encouraging city projects, SpaceHive has been used to fund a free wireless broadband network in Mansfield and a cage cricket area in south London. Friends of the Flyover used it to successfully propose transforming the flyover into a raised urban park and civic space. “Although we have raised funds from a variety of sources, including the council, we wanted people involved from the beginning, and so chose crowdfunding as the way to go,” Stewart says.
Other SpaceHive crowdfunding projects include the Park and Slide, a giant (temporary) water slide for Bristol’s city centre. Its creator, Luke Jerram, was also behind the Play Me I’m Yours project, which places free pianos in cities across the globe including at St Pancras train station in London. “In Geneva it was first paid for with government support in 2010,” Jerram says of the pianos. “A year later they fundraised for it to return, through crowdfunding. By this time, the public valued and understood the project, as they’d already experienced it the year before.” Developers have successfully used crowdfunding to construct new buildings in New York City. Another civic crowdfunding idea is Brickstarter, which addresses the fact that just raising the money to build something in a city isn’t enough – you have to get permission. Funded in 2012 by Sitra (the Finnish government’s innovation fund) after its creators saw that the majority of “consultations” with the public were generally negative engagements, Brickstarter aims to help move public involvement from “complain to create”, though for now it remains on the drawing board.
So the Invisible City seemed a no-brainer. With endorsements from Bonham Carter and Burton, superlative access and connections to local authorities, the treehouses in Regent’s Park should have been an easy success. In the event, it raised a commitment of just £27,000, a paltry 5% of its goal.
What happened? Joost Beunderman, from London-based architectural and strategy practice 00 [Zero Zero], argues that the ingredients of a successful crowdfunded urban project are simple. “What they tend to have in common is that the community of potential funders see that the creators of the project are authentic and credible – about their goals and about the role of community involvement,” he says.
The emphasis, in other words, needs to be on the crowd, not the funding. In the case of the treehouses, it seems there was little community consensus that they were really necessary: might it not just be another playground for the cultural elite? After all, who wants to be told by a multimillionaire how amazing a project would be if you paid for it? “In many of the more successful cases, people are asked to fund the second stage of a project, after a first stage has already made tangible impact,” says Beunderman. “Or at least when a real community of interest around a project has already been built, so the public can see with confidence what difference their money will make.”
Civic crowdfunding has also generated a certain amount of controversy. Should it be the responsibility of the community to fund city improvements, rather than municipal government? If you pay your taxes, why should you pay for bridges? Is civic crowdfunding really an example of David Cameron’s “big society”, in which governmental involvement, and importantly financing, is reduced?
Of course, nobody is proposing that we crowdfund the fixing of potholes – yet. Where crowdfunding really comes into its own is by letting the community help decide what should happen in their area, and then help to make it happen. By its nature, crowdfunding works on voluntary contribution, which gives funders a personal stake in a given project that they wouldn’t have if it were funded by government. The Invisible City might have been an interesting civic project to fund, but – for now at least – it has yet to gather a crowd.
This article first appeared on The Guardian website.