Civic crowdfunding: a new start for micro urban regeneration?

by Silvia Gullino

The railway line in Peckham London
Figure 1: The railway line (Peckham Coal Line project). Photo: Silvia Gullino

Crowdfunding is the collective effort of a large number of people, who pool together a small amount of money to support a great variety of projects they believe in or expect a return from. Examples range from helping museums to commissioning artwork, to supporting new technology applied to smart clothing, from connecting communities through food ventures to producing movies.

The process of fundraising, which has recently gained popularity for a wide range of purposes, takes place online on digital platforms such as Kickstarter and Crowdcube. Here ideas get posted to get visibility and attract support. Fundraisers, in order to reach their financial target, also seek funds by setting up their own website and starting their own crowdfunding campaigns. Money is raised through different networks, often starting with family and friends and extending the reach through social media (Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Instagram) in order to secure a wider base of support. According to the specific platform used, supporters can then receive different forms of benefits that are unique to that project: they can donate as a form of lending and returns are financial, they can donate in exchange for equity, or they can donate because they believe in the cause and don’t expect anything back.

By pursuing a great variety of goals such as helping funding arts, community activities and small start-up businesses, crowdfunding has also found application in the built environment. ‘Civic’ crowdfunding, as a sub-type of crowdfunding, has the same donation-based model to raise money, but is specifically aimed to fund public assets without rewards in return.

Could digital platforms that promote and support civic crowdfunding offer a new process for micro urban regeneration in European cities? Examples such as the London-based Spacehive, Italy’s PlanBee and Eppela, the Netherland’s Voor je Buurt and the more recent US’ Patronicity platforms are promoting civic ideas, attracting supporters and securing funds. The ideas that they support appear to be locally-driven, capturing the imagination, enthusiasm and energy of local people and contributing to local changes that go beyond the boundaries of the actual physical changes.

Figure 2: Multi-storey complex next to the disused railway line. Photo: Silvia Gullino
Figure 2: Multi-storey complex next to the disused railway line. Photo: Silvia Gullino

The principal of crowdfunding in relation to civic, urban-regeneration projects is not new. For instance funding for a fitting pedestal for the Statue of Liberty was raised in 1885 through a newspaper based donation campaign, while over a hundred years ago the University of Sheffield was founded by penny donations from factory workers; more recently, the High Line park in New York was brought to life via a combination of public funding and philanthropic donations. The real innovation is in the recent digital dimension of the platforms. It appears to have allowed more people to proactively get involved in changing their local environment and designing project proposals. These range from improving or designing new green spaces to creating new art hubs and reusing derelict buildings or underused spaces, to creating shared community growing spaces for community purposes. Through publishing project ideas on online platforms, they can attract supporters (and feedback), raise money, and, if the funding target is reached, collect the donations and develop the project.

A quick review of current projects listed on Spacehive is useful to demonstrate the variety of projects that are being proposed. They vary in terms of project dimension, financial target they aim for (from a few hundred pounds for a music performance in a park, to over one hundred thousand pounds for a sculpture walk in East London), pledge size (from a few but large pledges for a project on community art to almost a thousand of small pledges for a new green space), and promoters (from local community groups with a large and capillary support basis to a few local business investing locally).

Besides the financial mechanisms of raising funds, all these initiatives have in common innovative and creative visions at their core, a bottom-up approach and a community focus and local scale. However, some more than others seem to succeed in generating wide local participation, new forms of urban governance and innovative projects with the potential of activating citizen-led, micro-regeneration projects. In addition, London-based projects that specifically aim to improve local high streets, also have the opportunity to receive match-funding through the Mayor’s Crowd Funding programme.

Figure 3: Scaffolding yard near the disused Peckham coal railway line. (Photo: Silvia Gullino)
Figure 3: Scaffolding yard near the disused Peckham coal railway line. Photo: Silvia Gullino

The ‘Peckham Coal Line’ project is one such London-based project. It is an elevated 1km long park, designed to regenerate the disused railway coal sidings and to generate a green link between the two high streets in Queen’s Road Peckham and Peckham Rye (see Photos 1-3). At a local level, this project has already attracted funds from over nine hundred people, surpassing its financial target, but most importantly, it has created lots of enthusiasm and mobilised local participation and helped create a community shared vision for the area. Backed by the Mayor’s funds, at an urban scale this project has the potential to generate new urban governance relationships, where Network Rail (the UK Railway line authority) and the London Borough of Southwark will team up with the Peckham Coal Line group in delivering the community vision, and to connect with other green networks, contributing to the transformation of urban spaces at a wider scale.

Such examples also raise questions about how ‘urban regeneration’ should take place and their goals and whether these crowd-funded projects sit easily alongside projects driven by economic growth, political agendas such as controversial high-profit residential developments glossed over as regeneration. How can and should local people participate in urban regeneration projects? What kinds of urban changes count as regeneration? What does the existence of hundreds or thousands of civic crowdfunding supporters imply for the governance of these crowd-funded projects and accountability for their outcomes?

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