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July 14, 2015 / Leo Hollis

The Problem with Cities and Crowdfunding

Earlier this week, another project achieved its funding target on Kickstarter – the Thames Baths, an innovative plan by a team of young British architects to bring swimming back to the Thames. Inspired by similar projects in Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen, the project raised £125,000 for its first big stage, crossing the line with four days to go on the back of endorsements from Tracey Emin and David Walliams to New London Architecture and the Outdoor Swimming Society.

The “baths” in question will be a floating lido, filled with gently heated Thames water, on a pontoon that rises and falls with the tide and is connected to the shore. It will contain a 25-metre lap pool, and a smaller training pool for all types of swimmers. The water will be naturally filtered, simultaneously working to purify the Thames and mitigating fears of “Bermondsey belly”.

It is refreshing to see a new public space being suggested for the heart of the city. In recent years, so much of London has been divided into places that give the impression of being public, but carry heavy corporate sponsorship, constant surveillance and discreet policies of exclusion that decide who is welcome and who is not. From “poor doors” to Paternoster Square and the gated stretches of the supposedly public Thames Pathway, this exclusion is subtle. I like to call it “Jane-washing”: plans that give the appearance of following the creed of urbanist Jane Jacobs (who celebrated the relationship between place and community) but without any commitment to genuine free movement of people. At best, it produces an eerie, business-park cleanliness, fringed by neatly curated shrubbery; at worst, empty, sterile places where no one wants to be.

The Thames Baths (if it goes ahead) is important as a new public space, and was also crowdfunded by over 1,200 individuals in pledges from £1 to £5,000, rather than being created by private investors or corporate interests. The team pledges to keep the Baths a public facility, and has set up the project as a Community Interest Company (CIC) to ensure that all the money is legally reserved for the social goals of the project. Nevertheless, there will be deals and negotiations as it moves closer to its goal, and it is highly likely that the team will seek private investment to see it to completion.
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One of the team, architect Chris Romer-Lee, is a friend of mine, and I look forward to the first time that I can dive into the Thames water without fearing for my health and safety. Nonetheless, the use of crowdfunding for large urban projects concerns me. Since Joseph Pulitzer raised $100,000 for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, there have always been campaigns for gathering funds for public projects, from church funds to local fetes – and recently Britain has seen a number of successful campaigns to crowdfund both essential and more light-hearted projects.

On Saturday, The Line will open: a sculpture walk through east London, from the O2 to the Olympic Park, following the Lea Valley, with pieces from artists such as Anthony Gormley, Damien Hirst and Bill Viola placed along the way. Having raised £140,000 from charities and private donations, the project is intended to revive a neglected part of the city. But it is difficult to see it outside the context of the regeneration program for Canning Town, one of the poorest boroughs in London, and the housing bonanza that occurred in Stratford around the 2012 games. Good intentions or no, The Line might become part of a larger process of gentrification in the East End.

The same crowdfunding platform on which The Line struck gold, Spacehive, has specialised in funding a range of urban projects, including raising £792,000 for the Glyncoch Community Centre. It has spun off a series of local programmes, such as the Camden Hive – which promotes 11 projects, from a mushroom farm to restoring a local spire – and the #MakeMCR project in Manchester, which works with the city council and other civic and commercial partners to discover local innovation.

Do these online platforms offer a good alternative to traditional civic planning and investment? In many occasions, it might appear so. The success of crowdfunding can give the impression that such schemes replace the obligation of local government to provide for its constituents. This is wrong-headed, to be sure, but is already happening: Belsize Community Library, for example, is being threatened with closure unless it can find a lifeline with local fundraising.

Then there’s the question of whether these projects give preferential treatment to people who have a spare £50 to pitch in. The Thames Baths has not offered investors any special swimming lanes, for example, but Kickstarter encourages preferential treatment through its tiers of donation.

Nor does crowdfunding present a reliable line of aid. The Invisible City, a series of tree houses in Regent’s Park, failed to get funding despite the support of celebrities such as Helena Bonham Carter – an example that shows that projects need communities as much as funds.

One alternative that could combine the community strengths of crowdfunding with the less exciting, but equally important, responsibilities of government to provide public services for citizens is participatory budgeting. This sets aside a certain percentage of City Hall’s funds for projects that are voted on by citizens. Recently, in Paris, 5% of City Hall investment budget was put to a poll, which was won by a series of “garden walls”; there was lots of interest, too, in developing public space for music and for recycling projects.

In London, we remain dependent on councils, the mayor and corporations for funding. I suspect that if Boris Johnson were to put the Thames Baths to a referendum against the Garden Bridge, which has already secured public funding with no public consultation, it would be a very tight vote.

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