Kickstarting Urban Development

In the current period of economic downturn, many urban (re)development projects are grinding to a halt due to lack of funding. At the same time, recession related grassroot activism such as Occupy shows that citizens wish to be actively engaged in decision-making. Moreover, the success of websites such as Kickstarter demonstrates that crowd-funding offers a viable alternative to traditional venture capital. It is against the backdrop of these developments that some are calling for an “emergent urbanism” which aims to improve the built environment from the bottom-up. Inspired by the success crowd-funding for creative projects, a few platforms for crowd-funding projects in the built environment have taken off. In this article I explore the notion of “emergent urbanism” and investigate the possibilities of crowd-funding as a means of facilitating bottom up urban development.

High-Line-New-York-24Perhaps the most iconic example of emergent urbanism is the High Line Park which has transformed part of New York. The High Line is former elevated rail-road that runs along the west side of Manhattan. Because of the rise in trucking, the rail-road fell into disuse and plans for its demolition were proposed. Residents of Chelsea opposed these plans and suggested the elevated rail-road should be transformed into a public space. The “Friends of the High Line” initiative was formed and raised money to execute a feasibility study. Following the study, and the concomitant publicity, community support broadened and the New York city government committed funds to project. The redevelopment of the park started in 2006 and the first phase of the project was completed in 2009. The project is heralded for its positive impact on the liveability of the area, and is said to be the catalyst for other real estate developments in the area.

The High Line project illustrates that bottom up urban development can work. It’s success has not gone unnoticed and has sparked similar initiatives in other cities. However, it is questionable whether the success of the High Line can be replicated elsewhere. The Friends of the High Line are a group of affluent citizens, making it easier for them to start up such a large-scale project. It is unlikely that less well-connected people can pull something like it.

Still, this is the vision expressed by Brickstarter. Rather then actually aiming to create a crowd-funding platform for the built environment, Brickstarter is an initiative to explore the possibilities of such platforms. Brickstarter believes that entrepreneurs will use its investigations to develop a crowd-funding website. Brickstarter presents a very detailed concept in which people cannot only pledge to invest in a project, but also express volunteer to provide a service in the development of a construction project. Moreover, city officials can choose to support a community-started project and Brickstarter also provides an overview of the different planning permissions that are necessary for the project to kick off.

Two existing platforms seem to built upon the ideas of Brickstarter. The first is Spacehive, which can be best thought of as a direct clone of Kickstarter. Examples of projects on Spacehive include green spaces, playgrounds and sports fields. Spacehive explicitly states that it does not aim to short cut the planning permit system, but rather creates a vibrant marketplace where people can discover new projects and contribute to them. IOBY is a non-profit alternative to Spacehive, it strives to “enable city dwellers to change their environment”. The platform focusses on small scale projects like city farming. IOBY’s mission is to deepen civic engagement in cities by connecting individuals directly to community-led, neighbour-funded environmental projects in their neighbourhoods.

timelineWhile Brickstarter hopes to inspire platforms that revolutionize urban development, the existing crowd-funding websites for the built environment seem to be less ambitious. Instead of aiming to facilitate the development of actual real estate developments, these websites aim at improving the neighbourhood through interventions such as cleaning up derelict sites and creating small parks. So why don’t these websites include more ambitious projects? The issue lies in the practice of real estate development.

Real estate development (RED) requires expertise in a variety of area’s such as finance, law and construction. This, coupled with the long time frame of RED, necessitates careful project management and a long term vision. Large RED projects reuire lare amounts of funding and it is not said that such capital could be raised bycrowd-funding. Furthermore, it is unlikely that “the crowd” will be able to provide the necessary area specific expertise and management skills to successfully complete an RED-project. Also, it is unclear where the liability for such projects would lay. The aim of Brickstarter to revolutionize urban development is thus too ambitious. However, the initiative does present valuable ideas that could improve traditional real estate development.

For instance, web-platforms could be used to increase the transparency of real estate development. This is something local governments in the Netherlands have been calling for in order to improve public participation. Such participation is often also in the interest of the real estate developer, because it prevents local residents from delaying projects with lawsuits in later stages. Furthermore, allowing residents to comment on blueprints and artist impressions could improve the quality of the end-product. In addition, web-platforms could help private real estate developers to gauge the market demand. Therefore it is not unthinkable that real estate developers and local governments will develop Brickstarter-inspired platforms in the future.

In spirit with the ideas of  Jane Jacobs emergent urban development contributes to an urban planning for the people. While some example of emergent urban development show the promise of the concept, it is debatable whether it could work in other contexts. Crowdfunding initiatives show some promise for facilitating emergent urban development at the small scale, but are unlikely to replace traditional forms of real estate development and funding. Still, web-based platforms that focus on public participation could supplement the real estate development process. I believe that we just might see real estate developers and governments developing such platforms in the not too distant future.

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