Kickstarted: Crowd-funding Projects for Urban Environments

A view of a project proposal successfully funded via the Kickstarter platform. Courtesy + POOL Kickstarter page.

A view of a project proposal successfully funded via the Kickstarter platform.
Courtesy + POOL Kickstarter page.

It wasn’t the same old Duany song-and-dance at a recent conference hosted by the Florida chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism. At the University of Miami in late January, acclaimed neotraditionalist architect and planner Andres Duany, of Seaside fame, “fell on his sword,” writes planner-writer Erin Chantry. The New Urbanist pioneer, humbled, admitted that tenets of the philosophy he helped make famous, years later, required rethinking.

Duany pointed out key issues facing cities as they move forward, namely a “new normal” of small or shrinking budgets, and the realities of climate change. Both of these factors contribute to the need for more nimble, less costly planning practices. Planners need to figure out a way to “make a difference for much less,” notes Chantry.

Currently, city and regional planners work through city budgeting processes to fund comprehensive plans, area plans, design charettes and other outreach processes. In the future, shrinking budgets may necessitate even cheaper approaches to rethinking urban environments. How will those projects take shape? What will their goals be? How can planners better engage with community-led projects to build ownership in urban projects? Be they employed by cities or non-governmental organizations, planners may need to consider a new tool for generating grassroots resources. New platforms are providing urban residents with a unique financing mechanism, one that may go a long way toward capitalizing on Duany’s call to action.

Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other web-based fundraising platforms have been leveraged to fund projects that bring value to urban environments. It’s a phenomenon known as “crowdfunding” or “crowdsourcing”–in essence, providing people the opportunity to stake some ownership in a project, by pitching in money to see it happen. Authors have turned to the platform as a sort of presale for their first run of books. Artists have used crowdsourcing to get production and installation pieces off the ground. Now, intrepid city dwellers are using the technique as grassroots community building.

Another view of the + POOL.  Courtesy +POOL Kickstarter page.

Another view of the + POOL.
Courtesy +POOL Kickstarter page.

Take the + POOL project, a proposal to build a lilypad-like floating floating pool in New York’s East River. Once installed, the walls of pool will act as filters for the river in which it floats–bacteria and contamination will be scrubbed from the water as it moves through the porous structure, cleaning half a million gallons of water each day, according to the project’s creators. Supporters successfully raised more than $250,000 to bring the project to life. What’s more, in exchange for their donations, “investors” (donors don’t yield dividends in the traditional sense), each receive their name embossed on one of the pool’s many gleaming tiles. Much like a city park, the project also improves the overall urban environment, contributes to cleaning the murky river, and provides New Yorkers the ability to do something unheard of–to swim in the East River.

+ POOL isn’t an outlier. Outside Dallas, the Urban Acres project seeks to install a farmstead minutes from the city. A group of photographers in Brooklyn are looking to create an artist’s village using old shipping containers. And a community in Baltimore funded a project to convert a neighborhood restaurant into office, theater and gallery space. 

The team behind Dallas, Texas' Urban Acres project, a crowdsourced urban farmstead.  Photo courtesy Urban Acres Kickstarter page.

The team behind Dallas, Texas’ Urban Acres project, a crowdsourced urban farmstead.
Photo courtesy Urban Acres Kickstarter page.

How will planners accommodate these projects? Can they become stakeholders, or encourage cities to leverage investments through kickstarted projects? Planners should take note of how communities are leveraging these technologies to bring their visions to life. Rather than simply rely on municipal budgets, urban stakeholders are branching out, gathering cash online to refashion their neighborhoods. Rather than work through traditional channels of bond-raising and grant-writing, citizens can put together a campaign as soon as an idea is formulated. Not only can crowdsourcing projects extend Duany’s call to “lighter, quicker, cheaper” to non-professional planners, but because of the low barrier-to-entry offered by Kickstarter and Indiegogo, they may serve as equitable platforms for local neighborhood development. 

Cities are, essentially, already crowdsourced entities in the form of tax revenues. But in some places, the crowdsourcing concept has spread even further, extending to municipal governments themselves. Though already funded by tax revenue, city officials in cash-strapped Central Falls, Rhode Island set out to raise $10,000 for a public park clean-up project through Citizinvestor, a new crowdsourcing platform dedicated to the concept, launched in 2012. While that project failed to materialize, another private New York project, the LowLine (capitalizing on the success of the High Line), managed to raise $300,000 for a subterranean parks project. The failure of the Central Falls campaign begs questions for the larger crowdsourcing landscape–can these projects only meet success in dense urban areas? Can city-sponsored Kickstarters be successful? Who funds these projects? What do they hope to receive from their “investments”? Do stakeholders in Kickstarted projects expect more from these initiatives than they do from city-created projects?

These questions have no easy answers. However, they may indicate limitations of Kickstarter urbanism, as noted in articles published by The Atlantic Cities and Design Observer. In short, suitable funding platform for a hip new watch, writes Alexandra Lange, “is not a suitable funding platform for a city.” Considering the opportunities and the limitations of this lightweight funding platform will be important issues with which to contend.

One thought on “Kickstarted: Crowd-funding Projects for Urban Environments

  1. Great piece. One of the biggest problems with citizen led project initiatives is that there are often very few available financing sources. I don’t think Kickstarter will ever help set up a regional transportation hub, but there is surely a chance to help garner funding for small scale neighborhood improvement projects.

    It is also interesting to think about who ends up contributing to these projects. If I were to set up a parklet project for Boise on kickstarter would it be only individuals who are directly benefiting from the project who are making contributions, or do people who will never see the project help support our community?

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