Crowdfunded Urbanism – Breaking new ground in civic participation.

by Valentin Schipfer

To be honest, I have never parted with Euros for any crowdfunding project until today. I suppose ideas on www.kickstarter.com , www.indiegogo.com or similar platforms have not yet convinced me enough. Probably I did not enthuse and identify myself sufficiently. Lately though, I have crashed into various crowdfunding projects which definitely caught my attention. Each of them substantially contributes to the urban development of city quarters and manages to forgo investors or real-estate tycoons. In this blog entry I am going to demonstrate how some of the first civic crowdfunded projects become reality through consumers who collectively invested in the same idea.

A 3D rendering of the +POOL.

A 3D rendering of the +POOL.

Let’s start in a city that is incredible to live in, where you can do almost anything you can imagine, except  swimming in a river – New York City. First it was just a simple idea among three friends who asked themselves: Instead of trying to clean the entire river, what if you started by cleaning a small piece of it? After the first crowdfunded round on kickstarter.com they raised over $ 41.000 from 1.203 backers, surpassing their goal of $ 25.000 in six days. This enabled them to launch a series of water quality and filtration tests in real-river conditions. Their aim: “Like a giant strainer dropped into the river, +POOL makes it possible for everybody to swim in clean river water right in New York’s East River.”

Like a giant strainer...

Like a giant strainer…

As stated on their website the pool is designed to filter the very river that it floats in through the walls of the pool. The layered filtration system incrementally removes bacteria and contaminants to ensure nothing but clean, swimmable water that meets both city and state standards. No chemicals, no additives, just natural river water. It will clean up to two million litres of river water every single day and make a measurable contribution to the rivers of New York City.

Tile by tile.

Tile by tile.

Those who back the crowdfunding civic project were recognized by having their name engraved on one of the pool’s 70.000 tiles. With each tile costing around $ 199, the pool’s designers say that filling every tile would cover the whole cost of the pool’s predicted $ 15 million price tag. Tough the official funding target was more modest and raised $ 273.114 – the cost of the float lab. In early 2014 together with naval architects, filtration systems specialists, engineers and environmental consultants they will launch the test of +POOL’s complete combination of filtration membranes in real-river conditions. Once the final +POOL is finished, it is still unclear to me how the three entrepreneurs will count on an economic return. Will backers have to pay entrance fees for the +Pool they have financed? Or will it be free to the public?

The crowdfunded Luchtensingesl Bridge in Rotterdam.

The crowdfunded Luchtensingesl Bridge in Rotterdam.

Civic crowdfunding projects are possible everywhere where citizens show enough identification with their urban environment. So did the Dutch who can also take pride in having raised their first project. In a January 2013 report on crowdfunding architecture  it was highlighted: The people of Rotterdam have long been struggling with a part of their city divided in half by heavy traffic and limited ways to access shopping and recreational areas. Having very limited means to invest in infrastructure, the group Zones Urbaines Sensibles decided to go online in an attempt to crowdfund the Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge located in the middle of the city.

Bridge2

Successful crowdfunded projects often go hand in hand with efficient marketing campaigns and catchy claims. So was this one “The more you donate, the longer the bridge.” The idea of a pedestrian bridge had already been mentioned in the Central District Masterplan of Rotterdam,  however it was scheduled to get constructed in 30 years. That’s why Zones Urbaines Sensinbles decided to bypass investors. Similar to +POOL, each backer can leave a message on as many fabrics of the bridge as he is willing to invest. You can either display a message to a loved one, an ad of your business, your name or whatever comes to your mind. The more people get enthused the longer the bridge will get. The report also points out that part of the success can be attributed to the fact that “once the first funds are contributed, the construction can begin, and the image of half a bridge is an easy one to use as a campaign message.”

Plank by plank.

Plank by plank.

This part of the city was neglected for years and dominated by vacancy. The Luchtsingel bridge will put an end to this by connecting Rotterdam North to the centre. With the realization of the Luchtsingel, the neglected area will get revitalized again. Besides that the foot bridge is a catalyst for economic growth and raising living quality by interlinking following projects: the DakAkker, a harvestable rooftop garden on the Schieblock building cultivating fruits, vegetables, herbs and even honey; the roof of Station Hofplein will be greened and create a unique place to picnic, take walks and will house small events and initiatives with a magnificent view over the city; Park Pompenburg will be transformed into a recreational area providing space for urban farming, a co-operative slot, sports courts and even barbecue areas. The Luchtsingel footbridge will be finished in summer 2014. One question remains open though: Who will pay the bridge’s maintenance and insurance?

The BD Bacatá Tower in Bogotá/Colombia.

The BD Bacatá Tower in Bogotá/Colombia.

The biggest among all civic crowdfunded projects, that is currently sparking excitement in an emerging country, is called BD Bacatá. BD Bacatá will be the tallest building in Colombia and will tower 66 stories, 216 meters high, above the city of Bogotá. “Instead of relying on few real estate tycoons and a couple of banks, more than 3.000 people have invested in a share in the building and raised more than $ 170 million for the $ 240 million project.”, mentioned on Archdaily. This giant crowdfunding project galvanized that many backers at breakneck pace through an extensive advertising campaign on billboards, radio and TV. Unlike the mentioned examples above, there is a real estate developer behind this one. His name is Rodrigo Niño, the founder of the fast growing, real estate crowdfunding platform Prodigy Network. It is somehow a blend of interests from the private sector and civil society.

The crowdfunded solar power plant in Vienna.

The crowdfunded solar power plant in Vienna.

The Austrian urban researcher and teacher at the Technical University of Vienna Peter Mörtenböck is convinced that civic crowdfunding is the next step after guerrilla-gardening and pop-up urbanism. It is breaking new ground by enabling citizens to become micro-investors. In doing so, citizens experience their own responsibility for the urban environment, a stronger identification and can even economically benefit from a real-estate project like BD Bacatá. In my hometown Vienna, one of the biggest energy providers has launched their first civic solar power plants, receiving financial contributions from citizens. It is only a small step to a civic public space or a crowdfunded real-estate project. Once again I am very grateful for the democratizing effect of the internet and for these pioneer projects meeting the aspirations of a 21st century co-operative urban society.

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3 Responses to Crowdfunded Urbanism – Breaking new ground in civic participation.

  1. Tilman says:

    Hi. Thank you for this interesting and well done blog entry. My question is, if the whole thing described here, is really that progressive and new as it seems to be? There have been decades of collective housing cooperatives and states like Germany or Austria have a quite succesful tradition of Volksbanken- und Raiffeisenbanken. Their modell hasn’t been internet based, but on my point of view it is on a rights perspective more progressive as every example mentioned here. Or am I wrong?

    • Valentin Schipfer says:

      Dear Tilman. Thank you for leaving a comment. I know about so called “Baugemeinschaften” (building communities) in Austria and “Baugruppen” (building groups) at the new urban development area “Seestadt Aspern” in Vienna (http://www.aspern-baugruppen.at/ ). The expamples you mentioned sound very interesting and I would like to know more about them. Could you maybe send a short reply to my email or post another comment below?

      • Tilman says:

        Dear Valentin, maybe you should just google “Berliner Genossenschaften” – I think most of the pages are very useful. After I learned more about cooperatives I got a member of some, for instance my bank PSD Bank Berlin-Brandenburg or my housing cooperative GeWo Süd. It’s to a certain degree a good investment.

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