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"Making something big happen at an urban scale is more than a popularity contest"

Opinion: crowdfunding platforms have rules about pitching for money to make products that haven't been developed to prototype stage – the same rules should apply to crowdfunding campaigns for civic projects, says Alexandra Lange.

Did you know the Statue of Liberty was one of the first civic crowdfunding campaigns in America? This piece of century-old news made the rounds last year, as readers rediscovered the central role of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in raising $100,000 ($2.3M in today's dollars) to fund the pedestal to receive Lady Liberty in 1885.

As MIT researcher Rodrigo Davies pointed out then, and does again in his recent thesis on civic crowdfunding, it wasn't just the five-month, centrally organised campaign that makes the Statue a historical precedent. Rather, it was the skilful way Pulitzer's paper made it seem as if everyone were donating, with daily updates, a reward system, and personal anecdotes underlining the idea that no amount was too small. The World also used anti-elite sentiments to rally the working classes to the cause – traditional, big-donor fundraising hadn't closed the gap on the pedestal's cost – mentioning donors by name in daily updates, and used the platform of the newspaper to make the campaign appear to be ongoing national news. Social media requests for backing, frequent emails once you have given, a commemorative tchotchke once it’s all over: all news from 1885.

Embedded in that anecdote, and in Davies's thoughtful and readable thesis, are a number of other lessons that suggest different paths for making civic crowdfunding into a broader urban force. Looking at efforts across topic-specific platforms like Spacehive and ioby, as well as general-interest ones like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, civic projects are among the most successful at meeting their goals.

But research on crowdfunding to date has primarily focused on it as a market, paying little-to-no-attention to the content. Davies argues that civic crowdfunding, done right, "could open fresh pathways for communities to participate in shaping their environment." He ends with more questions, rather than answers, stymied at times by the short duration of digital civic fundraising as a category (it's less than five years old) and a major lack of data.

The first question I had, reading this research, was about the definition of "success." Is success, at a civic level, defined only by reaching your funding goal? Or do civic projects need to be evaluated by a different standard? This question recalled the argument I made in 2012 "Against Kickstarter Urbanism." Davies references that essay, summarising my point as follows.

"The association of crowdfunding with an entrepreneurial paradigm leads Lange (2012) to reject it as an appropriate model for urban planning. She argues that the hyper-temporality of fundraising campaigns means that large-scale, long-term projects will either fail to raise funds, or will falter at a later stage due to the absence of institutional support."

In other words, making something big happen at an urban scale is more than a popularity contest, and requires more skills, politics and capital funds than any of these platforms have so far been able to provide.

At the Statue of Liberty, both the French and American governments had already ponied up, there was a site, and so on: the World's campaign had to finish the job. Because of the intense personalisation of the crowdfunding campaign, those institutional forces, and even the labor of running a campaign (which can now be outsourced).

Davies writes, "one consequence of this 'bootstrapped', implicitly anti-organisational bias is that crowdfunding often renders invisible the significant work and resources required to run a successful campaign, which are underestimated by creators." He also points out that this unacknowledged work may limit the type of people that can run a campaign; it's like taking on a second job.

The large-scale, long-term project that I picked on in that earlier piece was the Lowline, an underground "park" in a former trolley tunnel that would channel sunlight to grow trees underground. The funds raised via Kickstarter were for exploratory technology for those underground skylights, and the founders, then as now, had no rights to the tunnel. To me, "success" would be the project actually happening, and the donors getting a return, in the form of public space, on their investment.

Many civic proposals are epically vague about the steps to be taken (replicating, in another form, the governmental 'dark matter' about which Dan Hill has written), and it is unclear if funders understand what they are paying for. One way around this problem – of permitting, of capital finding, of site acquisition – would be for civic crowdfunding to drop its guerrilla pose, and admit that partnering with government would actually give these projects a greater chance of real success. Spacehive, a smaller, British-based platform, has explored this partnership model, most notably in Bristol.

These large-sum projects make up, Davies's research reveals, only a tiny percentage of civic crowdfunding projects. Most funded projects are far more local in appeal, with a median fundraising goal of $8,000 and a median pledge of $62. They tend to be for gardens or parks in underserved communities, with the money going toward soil and seeds, education and training, or events – short-term and time-limited.

These are not the projects that get major media coverage, which is still the best way to raise larger sums. Social media provides the drumbeat, traditional media the reach, as in 1885. Such gardens are also far from "disruptive". Davies writes, "If crowdfunding remains a vehicle most oriented towards advancing projects that are uncontroversial, it will confirm the suspicion held by many that it serves well-resourced, technologically-savvy, majority communities much more than others."

Fresh examples of the last arrived in my inbox last week. Large-scale civic crowdfunding projects have mostly been concentrated in the cities where the platforms were born, which has made New York fertile territory. The Lowline fed conceptually off the success of the High Line (not crowdfunded); the latest copycats follow +POOL (a plus-shaped swimming pool that would float in, and filter, river water). 

There was a floating beach to be anchored off the coast of Manhattan and a stylised "campground" in the Rockaways, to obviate the need for a subway ride at one end of your sandy trip.  Chicago also has its own city-as-gadget example now in Breakwater Chicago, a proposal for a floating entertainment entertainment centre.

There's nothing inherently wrong with these ideas, as long as they stay private. They are all at a scale, however, that will require capital investment and support from the public sector, and it is hard to see them as major civic priorities. In the cases of the Lowline and the campground, the proposers don't even have title to the sites, which means the crowdfunding campaigns are really publicity plus dollars.

Once you think about connecting these online platforms with non-profits or local government, they start to sound much closer to a route some cities are already taking under different names. Participatory budgeting, for example, allows citizens to direct relatively small sums of public money to discrete projects, allowing voters to weigh priorities and see their tax dollars at work in their neighbourhoods. In mine, money has gone for street safety improvements, library upgrades, and park benches. One could also look to school Parent-Teacher Associations, which raise money for programs above and beyond the general education budget, or the private conservancies which maintain public parks through donations.

These last routes, however, have come under criticism for generating precisely the same inequities as civic crowdfunding may: all schools and all parks start at the same number per pupil or per square foot; rich ones can get their neighbours to add money on top. Is crowdfunding (like those conservancies) a replacement for more robust public funding? Does it privatise a formerly public asset (as at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where million-dollar apartments built inside the park are to fund its maintenance)?

The rhetoric of crowdfunding platforms stresses the way it reduces the buy-in for patronage – on Kickstarter, no one cares if you give less than $100 – but who is really using these platforms, and where? Davies found it impossible to collect enough data from the dot-coms to find out, but that is precisely the information needed to evaluate claims for democratisation.

Which brings us back to some of the original questions raised by the Statue of Liberty campaign. For civic crowdfunding to grow, it needs to engage, robustly and transparently, with questions of governance, equity and feasibility. It can't be outside the system, it can't make public projects all about personal narrative, it can't use crowdfunding as a stand-in for broad-based participation. We need new ways to surface good ideas. But those good ideas also need to be evaluated within larger-scale networks of urban priorities.

Davies suggests four possibilities going forward, from DIY platforms to full organisational absorption. The likeliest seem to be hybrids, building models of participation that aren't snobby about small numbers, bring civic improvement down to neighbourhood scale, but still maintain some old-fashioned checks-and-balances. (As I always want to say about Uber and Airbnb, "They created regulations for a REASON.")

In one of Davies's scenarios, elected officials "curate" lists of projects that reflect their agendas – and do due diligence on their feasibility. In another, platforms act as facilitators, bringing together partners and increasing their individual reach. Either way, existing modes of civic crowdfunding need to stop disappearing projects that don’t succeed, and make it easier to access data about location, participation, and follow-through. If you can’t Kickstart a new tent based on a rendering, you shouldn’t be allowed to Kickstart a campground based on the same amount of evidence.

Alexandra Lange is a New York-based architecture and design critic. She is a Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design for academic year 2013-2014 and is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism.