Crowdfunded Infrastructure

Crowdfunded Infrastructure

Opportunities and issues with using crowdfunding models for civic infrastructure.

Crossing Rotterdam’s crowdfunded Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge is an informal, do-it-yourself, festive experience unlike any government-designed overpass, or for that matter, New York’s high line with its voluminous budget. The Luchtsingel picks up on the western side of an urban infrastructure snarl on a wide flared plinth, playfully punctures through the Schieblock (an aging office building occupied by the creative class), then vaults 380 yards across a roadway, and finally sets down again on the western side of a large traffic rotary. Officially opened on July 13, 2012, the candy-yellow wooden planks have already faded under soles, and the upright boards bearing the crowdfunding patron’s slogans are weathered gray.

Crowdfunding for project development is a well-established model for individuals to pool their resources in support of specialty initiatives, for example software development, art projects, and business startups. But as the model is rarely used for physical improvements to the built environment, architecture, landscape, and urbanism firm ZUS generated significant buzz when it announced an ambitious project to crowdfund a network of pedestrian bridges for the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam: Making City.

Their campaign slogan “the more you donate, the longer the bridge” was presented with a rendering of footbridges crisscrossing the expanses of highways and train tracks that inhibit non-motorized permeability in Rotterdam’s downtown. ZUS’ construction design is an ingenious modular timber-frame that translates into sections that can be funded for 25, 125, or 1250 Euros, with each pay increase buying successively larger pieces of the bridge emblazed with lettering of the benefactor’s choice.

Within three months, civic-minded patrons had donated a third of the cash needed for the first span of the bridge, and the remainder was awarded through government grants. The bridge’s modular sections were assembled onsite in only two nights, followed by an official opening with clamorous fanfare. The upshot since then, in the most practical sense, has been continuous pedestrian connection without traffic lights or intersections from the central station to a previously inaccessible area. The bridge has enlivened two dead corners of the city, seeding a new event space and beer garden by the western staircase flair.

Crowdfunding civic infrastructure assumes significant municipal cooperation and support, as the local government carries long term operation and maintenance expenses and is liable for safety in the public realm. In the case of the Luchtsingel, there was a big buy-in (literally and figuratively) by the city’s planning office, and the project was as much a feather in the planners’ cap as it was in the architects’ and patrons’. On the other hand, crowdfunding does allow citizens unprecedented access into infrastructure management through initial financing and decision-making. When civic projects compete for crowdfunding, success inherently relies on popularity and appeal; however, it is not a true democracy when people vote with disposable income. Conceivably, a municipality could be swept away by the crowdfunding wave, resulting in under-service for lower income areas without the means to pre-finance public improvements.

The crowdfunding model is gathering steam for local improvements. The UK website Spacehive has been the platform for 19 funded projects in exchange for a 3.7% fee, including a free Wi-Fi hotspot in Mansfield (£36,850), conversion of an old toilet block into a micro-art gallery in Somerset (£10,559), and urban greening of Manchester’s Stevenson Square (£39,185). Similarly, in the US, the neighbor.ly platform has successfully funded one project, an initiative to extend fiber Internet connections in Kansas City ($11,126), and is working on a $100 million dollar streetcar line also in Kansas City.

Back in Rotterdam, what has been constructed thus far is only a small fraction of the entire vision for the Luchtsingel, but how much is it worth to the citizens?