Kevin McCloud, the presenter of Grand Designs, pledged £300 to help change a public toilet into an art café in Frome, Somerset.
The Channel 4 star is not the only person who is pledging his own money to improve public spaces. Crowdfunding – in which the cost of any social amenity is shared among the community – is a growing phenomenon.
Spacehive launched the world’s very first crowdfunding website dedicated to public space last year. Hundreds of people can contribute small amounts of money to popular projects to tap new sources of investment and creativity for the public domain.
Since it went live the website has been used to help develop more than £1m worth of projects ranging from wacky ideas, such as changing phone boxes into light boxes as works of art, to enterprise-driven ideas, such as the WiFi network which has transformed Mansfield town centre.
While many of these projects have been funded through individuals and businesses, crowdfunding presents a huge opportunity for councils too.
Dozens have pledged cash to support projects and an increasing number of local authorities, such as Hackney and Ealing, are setting up web pages to act as hubs for local enterprises.
The benefits for councils are obvious: they can make things happen by adding funds to their reduced budgets while at the same time bringing the community together. Those pledging money to a project are only charged when it hits its target, so councils backing a project takes no risk at all. If the pot isn’t filled, the money isn’t lost.
Mayors in the UK have got in on the act too. Boris Johnson has launched his pocket parks campaign, a scheme to create 100 green spaces across the capital. London’s mayor will then match-fund projects – offering grants of up to £20,000 to match money crowdfunded online.
The aim is to help raise funds to create small, neighbourhood green spaces to complement Johnson’s commitment to create green spaces the size of small tennis courts across the capital.
The mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, has also embraced crowdfunding as part of a wider suite of measures designed to attract investment. He recently set up an action plan for rationalising public assets across the city.
This idea has taken off in the US. Funding platform Kickstarter has bankrolled everything from filmmakers to rock singers, and there has been growing demand for more public-oriented projects. New Yorkers funded a $155,000 (£100,858) study into building a park under Lower Manhattan.
Spacehive differs from Kickstarter in that it includes a verification system whereby trusted charities or industry bodies check the validity of claims made by project promoters around things like permission. Our users enter into a ready-made community of councils, architects, advisors – and even funders.
Experian, the research giant, set up a pioneering match-funding agreement to part-fund town centre projects listed on Spacehive. Other major brands are in talks to follow suit, having realised the obvious opportunities.
While some may dismiss crowdfunding as simply a way for wealthy communities to supplement public spending, let me challenge this by explaining the first successful project we unlocked: a community centre in Glyncoch, south Wales.
The former mining town has 50% unemployment and severe deprivation. The £792,000 centre changed the town, not merely through the physical restructuring but through the legacy of empowerment it left. If we can create this kind of foundation in every community then our towns will regenerate themselves.
(Originally published in the Guardian)