Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Are crowd-sourced fundraising websites a good way to accelerate community-level projects?
Kickstarter, as Alexandra Lange noted in a recent article on Design Observer, is good at taking cool designs for watches or bike seats from idea to reality. But though the crowd-sourced fundraising website is also being used as a platform to build up funding for larger, city-focused projects, Lange argues that "Kickstarter urbanism" is not really possible.
One particularly notable example she points to is the so-called LowLine, a project aimed at turning an abandoned underground trolley terminal in Manhattan into a new public park. The project received more than $155,000 in support on Kickstarter – surpassing its goal. And while the idea of creating the park is grand, the results of this successful fundraising campaign will be much smaller and more pragmatic, mainly focusing on developing the cool fiber optic design that will help bring sunlight down into what's currently a dank underground.
As Lange notes, this is a great first step, but is only one of many required to bring about a new public space. The bureaucracy involved in realizing such a dream is actually a nightmare, one not as easy to maneuver as the click-to-donate web system of Kickstarter.
"[S]ave your money," Lange writes. "If you want to fund urbanism on Kickstarter, think small. For the big picture, a park, a pool or a playing field, maybe a new social media platform will emerge, ready to walk you through the meetings and legislative hiccups, with fundraising for photocopying as well as fiber-optics."
That website may not yet (or ever) exist, but there are a few example of similar websites that aim to be effective examples of how to fund and jumpstart city- or community-focused projects.
One such website is ioby, a formerly New York-focused but now national site aimed at gathering support for mostly environmental projects. The site follows the mold of Kickstarter in that it allows users to post project ideas and descriptions with specific funding goals. The projects tend to be focused on local, small-scale environmentally focused initiatives, like this campaign to create a youth-run, after-school mobile bike repair and training center in Boston or this successful effort to raise $3,708 for a "solar-powered aerated static pile composting system" for a rooftop farming effort in New York.
In addition to raising money, many projects on ioby also call for volunteers. Being local in nature, these projects often benefit from both the money and physical effort of nearby neighbors interested in making a change. (The name ioby stands for "in our back yards.")
Another site, based in the United Kingdom, has a similarly urban focus but tends to include projects of a much larger scale. Spacehive follows the Kickstarter model of allowing people to propose ideas and raise the money to build them. Projects on Spacehive include a proposal to convert an empty roundabout in Bristol into a performance space and public park and an effort to build a new community center in Glyncoch, Wales – a project that exceeded its fundraising goal of £791,433.
With their much grander scale, these projects represent the sort of crowdsourced urbanism Lange worries about. But Spacehive's process requires that projects are fully-baked and then approved by the site's team before being added to the site – a process that pragmatically recognizes that not every wacky but fully funded idea will be able to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of local planning. And unlike the profusion of fund-hungry ideas on Kickstarter, there are just 12 projects currently on Spacehive.
Brickstarter, another still-forming website Lange mentions in her piece, is also looking at ways to realistically bring about urban-scale projects through this type of online participation and funding. A project of the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra, Brickstarter is more of a public participation tool than a specific project accelerator. The goal is to make it easier for locals to turn their ideas into legitimate proposals and then, ideally, into projects. As its website says, Brickstarter wants to take people "from NIMBY to YIMBY – Yes in my backyard!"
While neither of these websites might be the optimal way of building support and funding for urban projects, they each offer unique approaches that make the idea of a "Kickstarter urbanism" a real possibility.