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In Britain, Spacehive helps the people get civic projects done

Cultural Exchange: The crowd-funding website raises money for the kinds of public initiatives that used to be the domain of government. About 30 projects are being done in London's Tottenham area alone.

February 02, 2013|By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
  • Volunteers help out at Cody Dock, an East London industrial marina that’s been abandoned for decades.
Volunteers help out at Cody Dock, an East London industrial marina that’s… (Simon Myers, Gasworks Dock…)

LONDON — In 2011, the London riots created chaos across the capital as disgruntled youth burned down buildings, looted shops and rampaged in the streets. A recent exhibition in Tottenham, the epicenter of the riots, looked at the reasons why. However, it was not the government that raised funds to set up the exhibit but a couple of dozen ordinary people whose lives had been caught up in the mayhem.

"After the Riots — Happiness in Tottenham" is one of more than a hundred projects hosted on an innovative crowd-funding website that is starting to make waves across the United Kingdom. Spacehive.com raises money via the Internet for the kinds of public initiatives that used to be the exclusive domain of the government. Projects are built only if they reach their funding target, with residents and businesses pledging as much or as little as they see fit.

Anyone can propose an initiative, which must then pass a verification process. Successful projects have ranged from the creation of a tiny art space in a red telephone box in Edinburgh to a community center in a deprived ex-mining village in southern Wales.

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"The planning world is really out of date, archaic and unresponsive," explains Spacehive's founder, Chris Gourlay, 29, who launched the site in 2011. "Spacehive is attempting to change that dynamic. We want to use crowd funding as a mechanism to pump investment and creativity into civic space."

Around 30 projects are being done in Tottenham, an area in the north of the city that has the fourth-highest levels of child poverty in London. They include a project that aims to raise just over 11,000 pounds (about $17,000) to create a community kitchen, garden plots and market for local residents (around half live in government-subsidized "council" housing) in patches of overgrown land that surrounds a community center.

More than $4,100 has already been pledged within the first few months. Yet those who stand to benefit most remain skeptical. "The place looks exactly the same as it did 10 years ago. I don't think it's going to happen," says Gino Cihan, motioning his arms around the run-down, bare-bones interior of the cafe he runs within the center's complex.

But Abdikadir Hassan, who uses an office in the center, believes the Global Garden project is "brilliant." "We have empty space here, nobody uses the outside of the building," says Hassan. "I am a father of five. I want my kids to be a part of it."

Doubt and apathy about capacity for change are common problems, largely driven by loss of hope in disadvantaged areas. In southern Wales, the government struggled for eight years to raise funds to build the Glyncoch community center. But that changed when Spacehive was brought onto the job. Supported by celebrities such as comedian Stephen Fry and corporate giants like Tesco, it raised the remaining $55,000 needed within weeks.

"When you see people voting where their money is, it has a snowball effect," explains Gourlay, a former journalist with the Sunday Times. He says Spacehive works because it is driven by self-interest rather than charity. "It is not saying that the crowd will exclusively fund the thing. A relatively small crowd can unlock money from investors, companies, the council — whoever it is."

And for Spacehive, the time is right. While Britain once spent about $787 million a year in investment on public spaces such as parks and playgrounds, that total has been halved. Meanwhile, crowd funders raised $1.5 billion worldwide in 2011 (mostly in the U.S.) and about $190 million in the U.K. Nesta, an independent charity that looks at innovation, believes that within five years crowd funding could provide more than $23 billion of finance per year in the U.K. alone.

Crucially, Gourlay hopes to empower the populace by providing a platform that puts ordinary people in a position of control over their immediate surroundings. This stands in stark contrast to the sense of alienation and dislocation that fueled the London riots.

Simon Myers, 38, has taken this literally. He is at the forefront of an ambitious project to rejuvenate Cody Dock, an East London industrial marina built in the 1870s that has been cordoned off and abandoned for decades. Plans hinge on the construction of a new bridge and 200 meters of new footpaths. Together, they will create a 26-mile continuous riverside walk alongside the River Lea.

Myers, who sports a red goatee as well as dreadlocks down to his waist, wants locals to pledge not only their money but their time by volunteering to help build the bridge. He believes this is crucial in a borough whose population is one of the most transient in the U.K., with more than half of its residents born abroad. "The bridge is something that can let people go: 'I put my one pound in, I built a bit of this bridge.' We need a sense of place for newcomers here. If you decide how this area is built it becomes a catalyst for change."

Looking out over the derelict marina, such dreams seem a long way off. While skyscrapers shimmer in the business district of Canary Wharf just across the river, Cody Dock's grubby infrastructure appears forlorn in comparison. Yet change might just happen. Myers has already raised about $86,000 to start clearing away rubbish. An additional $125,000 will build the bridge.

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