How London uses crowdfunding to build projects — and community

Architect Chris Romer-Lee had a wild idea: Why not turn part of the River Thames into a swimming pool?

To see if the “Thames Baths” could work, Romer-Lee and his firm, Studio Octopi, did what many creative people with an idea have done in recent years: They launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. It was a rapid success. In less than a month, they raised more than £140,000, mostly in small donations. The money helped to pay for a pre-planning study.

Now Romer-Lee is at it again, trying to crowdfund another London swimming pool. The Peckham Lido project would revive a neighborhood pool that fell into disrepair and was filled in almost 30 years ago. This time, however, he’s running the campaign through a program set up by the Greater London Authority.

The Authority has set aside £730,000, or about US$1 million, to contribute toward community-driven ideas for improving urban spaces. Some 55 projects are competing for the funds, from a not-for-profit kid’s cafe to a community festival. One criterion for the judges is the project leaders’ success in using crowdfunding to raise matching funds. Pledges from City Hall will be announced June 29.

The Peckham Lido would appear to be a strong candidate. It’s raised more than any other project so far — nearly £29,000 — from more than 700 backers. Romer-Lee calls crowdfunding an “intriguing technique,” noting that the current campaign for the neighborhood pool has a different feel than the one for the Thames project. “The previous campaign was treating civic architecture almost as a product,” he says. By contrast, the city-sponsored campaign “boosts a sense of community and credibility.”

That’s exactly what the Greater London Authority’s regeneration team is going for. In fact, the current campaign is their third use of an approach that began under Mayor Boris Johnson and continues under the new mayor, Sadiq Khan. City officials have come to see crowdfunding as an important tool for what is essentially a new form of participatory budgeting. It’s a bottom-up democratic method for transforming the built environment that simultaneously fosters  community engagement.

There was a massive number of people who contributed small sums of money, and [the campaign] did a very good job in the tight community of Peckham in generating a lot of excitement.

Matt Winfield, director, Sustrans London

In a time of fiscal austerity, it’s also a way to keep momentum behind community projects. Nationally in the UK, annual spending on civic projects has plunged from £3 billion to £600 million as a result of cuts to funding for local councils. Crowdfunding taps the enthusiasm of willing contributors without burdening all taxpayers. It also allows the local government to support a project without bearing the weight of its success or failure and without having to foot the bill for staffing and other costs.

“Crowdfunding allows the actual implementation of neighborhood ideas,” says Konrad von Ritter, a consultant who’s been researching the ways cities are using the strategy. Von Ritter says a key aspect of London’s approach is what the city lends in terms of publicity — the lifeblood of any crowdfunding campaign. “It makes a big difference to the crowd that the mayor is behind it,” he says.

Platforms to build on

None of this is brand new, of course. In 1885, thousands of New Yorkers responded to Joseph Pulitzer’s call to help fund construction of a plinth for the Statue of Liberty to stand on. Since then, the internet and social media have simply made this kind of appeal easier to make — Pulitzer owned a newspaper but now anyone can launch a campaign like this. In recent years, dozens of web-based crowdfunding platforms have popped up. Some of them, such as Citizinvestor, Neighbor.ly and Ioby, specifically cater to neighbourhood-driven urban projects.

London’s program uses a platform called Spacehive — the UK cities of York and Hull are using it too. The London-based company says its aim is to give citizens power in shaping their communities and to connect them around a common goal.

“Regeneration can be seen as a dirty word,” explains Aaron O’Dowling-Keane of Spacehive. “But the program is moving away from the idea of ‘gentrification’ and asking people what they want from the areas they live, work and spend their time in.”

The London Mayor’s Crowdfunding Programme has its own “hive” on the site. This is where city officials can put out calls for urban regeneration projects, and where community members launch their campaigns.In the London model, projects get started crowdfunding on their own. About midway through the campaigns, the city throws its weight behind a certain number of projects, with the mayor pledging up to £20,000 of additional support per campaign. That money is meant to push the most viable projects over their funding goal — or at least give them enough credibility and publicity to give organisers room for one last fundraising push.

London puts some parameters around its support. Projects need to be located on or near a high (or “main”) street. They must seek to improve the environment, attract visitors and improve empty spaces. They need to bring economic and social vitality to the community and show strong support from the local area.

There’s also a good amount of vetting of the ideas. Spacehive does some of this by verifying that projects are financially viable and won’t get tripped up by problems such as project organisers not having permission to use a certain plot of land, for example. “This works well with local councils,” explains Harriet Gridley, community manager at Spacehive. “They like to have that verification before giving their name to something.”

‘Knock-on effect’

The Greater London Authority  judges projects based on four key areas. First is the quality of the idea, whether it is innovative and likely to make an impact; second is whether it realistically can be delivered if funded; third is whether the project brings value for money; and fourth is how successful the idea has been at generating public support via the crowdfunding campaign.

In London’s two prior crowdfunding rounds, projects picked by the city went on to get another big boost from the crowd. According to Spacehive, these projects saw a 171 per cent jump in the number of donations received after winning the mayor’s endorsement. In addition, the average daily total pledged to these projects increased from £60 to £200.

One of the most successful projects from the earlier rounds comes from the same south London neighborhood where Chris Romer-Lee wants to build the swimming pool. It’s called the Peckham Coal Line. The idea is to turn a disused elevated rail line into an elevated park — Peckham’s own version of New York’s High Line.

In order to fund an initial feasibility study, promotional materials and a basic asset protection agreement, the ambitious project set out to raise £65,000 through Spacehive. Of the total funds that rolled in, 69 percent came from the community, including £10,000 from the local council. That was topped up with another £10,000 from the mayor’s fund. “You might get a couple of businesses involved initially,” says Gridley. “But post-mayoral pledge, and then all the local pubs and shops want to show support. It’s a knock-on effect.”

One such organisation to join the crowd was the sustainable transport charity Sustrans. “After meeting the group [behind the Coal Line], we could see massive potential in the project,” explains Matt Winfield, London director for Sustrans. “There was a massive number of people who contributed small sums of money, and [the campaign] did a very good job in the tight community of Peckham in generating a lot of excitement.”

Chris Romer-Lee hopes  the Peckham community can muster the same energy again. The Peckham Lido reached 25 percent of its £66,000 target after just four days. But it still has more than halfway to go. He’ll be watching eagerly when City Hall announces its awards at the end of June.“It will be interesting to see how it all pans out,” Romer-Lee says. The local council has verbally agreed to support restoring the swimming pool at its former location, but the financing is the missing link. “After this first stage, the fun and games can begin.”

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