Crowdfund Your City!

How do you do it? What does it actually mean?

While crowdfunding provides social and financial support for projects, it is not a panacea for the infrastructure funding gap or neglected community engagement. Crowdfunding is a fickle tool that requires capable and resourced project sponsors and partners for its strategic implementation. Not all projects are good candidates for crowdfunding. And, not all crowdfunding models are created equal.

Donation crowdfunding models are best suited for public infrastructure projects, like community centers and protected bike lanes. This crowdfunding model leverages previous community engagement to ensure projects are well-aligned with neighborhood needs. Donation crowdfunding campaigns are often initiated by civic organizations. These organizations become ideal project sponsors who use the social and financial support from a crowdfunding campaign to attract political will for a project.  

Now, this is different for regulation crowdfunding which is commonly used for projects that have a revenue stream, like a toll road or utility. Regulation crowdfunding occurs after projects are prioritized or selected. At this phase, crowdfunding isn’t shifting development patterns, but rather reactively letting the community approve and become partial owners in the project. In this case, the project can attract local investors by fulfilling a community need and attract outside investors with a strong business case reinforced by community support.

Crowdfunding is not chosen purely as an engagement tool and neither as a purely financial tool. It is the interplay between these two purposes that allow it to be successful and also contentious. Regardless of the discourse surrounding crowdfunding, it draws attention to infrastructure projects, often neglected and unnoticed. It allows the community to see the project in new ways and begin to challenge authorities earlier in the process, providing enough time to address those concerns and improve the project. And that discourse might be the most powerful part of crowdfunding.

Learn How you can do it!

To better explain this, I worked with a very talented Stanford undergrad to develop an interactive tool to be used by practitioners, citizens, and YOU.  This tool is meant to help local leaders, who are facing extreme challenges in delivering public services, better understand the implementation and consequences of using new tools like crowdfunding. The tool includes (1) description of three different crowdfunding mechanisms, (2) stories of past crowdfunded projects, and (4) resources for moving forward with crowdfunding infrastructure projects in your community. Interested in learning more- Check it out for yourself!

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In the News and the Podcasts...

How can coastal cities afford the future of climate change?

In 2013, I spent a few months living in Orlando, Florida. I worked for a small transportation planning and engineering firm. While most of our work focused on improving traffic corridors in Central Florida, I would regularly drive to Miami for projects. It is a four-hour journey where you see Florida’s stunning landscape, from the expansive Everglades to small coastal communities. Since leaving Florida, I haven’t spent much time thinking about those long drives until this past week.

Delray Beach after a King Tide in 2016 (Photo Credit: Larry Richardson)

Delray Beach after a King Tide in 2016 (Photo Credit: Larry Richardson)

Earlier this last week, I was asked by the City of Delray Beach to help them address a growing concern: sea level rise. Delray Beach, a coastal community of 60,000 just 55 miles north of Miami, has seen increased flooding as a result of climate change. After several years of relentless storm surges and flooding, the City is currently working on rehabilitating its seawalls for residents who live along the intracoastal waterway. Despite this rehabilitation work, the City received a report in early February estimating that future seawall and stormwater infrastructure will cost $378 million over the next 30 years. This is a huge undertaking for any city and especially a city of 60,000 people. To put this in perspective, the City of Delray Beach’s Capital Improvement Plan (the next five years of infrastructure needs) budget is nearly $80 million for the fiscal year of 2018-2019, and current seawall renovations amount to only 4% of the total amount. But, this problem isn’t unique to Delray Beach.

FEMA Flood Mapping of Delray Beach

FEMA Flood Mapping of Delray Beach

NOAA and FEMA show that an expected two-foot sea level rise (which is a conservative estimate by many standards) by 2100 will impact many of Florida’s coastal towns, especially Miami and the Keyes. Without considering state-wide political hesitation to combat climate change (which is addressed in Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come), these coastal towns only have so many tools at their disposal to protect their communities from rising sea levels. Raising taxes to pay for seawall and stormwater infrastructure is not only politically unsavory, it is restricted by the Florida’s tax code. As you might know, Florida has no state or local income taxes. This means, that the bulk of state and local revenues come from property taxes. This might be why I saw so many luxury condominiums on my frequent drives up and down the coast. For the most part, the taxes on these properties are used to pay for everything, from public education to sanitation networks. Even though coastal cities could work together to lobby the state for additional funds or policy changes, they are often not incentivized to do so. This means that the outdated and overstressed National Flood Insurance Program, that many property owners pay as protection against flood damage, becomes a crutch for adequately addressing sea level rise.

So, in putting together a list of financial strategies for the City of Delray Beach, I had to consider all these constraints. And, it seemed that others had done the same. A group of lawyers outlined a list of strategies for Florida cities in an article from 2017. And, the city of San Francisco did the same, considering the larger state and federal policy constraints. With this information, I decided to do a preliminary analysis of the possible financial strategies for seawall and stormwater infrastructure. That’s what you find here; an eager attempt to understand the landscape of public financing for seawalls and stormwater infrastructure.

Click Heat Map (or  here ) to see more details

Click Heat Map (or here) to see more details

To understand and compare these strategies requires a more in-depth assessment. The heat map begins to outline these considerations and rank the strategies. And, the City of Delray Beach will need to use a mix of these strategies to be able to meet infrastructure needs. And, some of these strategies require the city to rethink what adaptation means.

When planning for 30 years of infrastructure, we must consider irreversible environmental trends. This heat map also includes strategies for financing adaptive coastline and managed retreat plans. While seawalls can save communities from current and imminent flood conditions, they have negative consequences for ecosystems and neighboring communities. Adaptive coastline and managed retreat plans would relocate coastal residents to inland areas, with a focus on shoreline restoration, creative reuse, and conservation. With this approach, the city could leverage additional grants and funding tools. This plan would be an investment in the safety of its current and future residents. It would require a longer and more involved community engagement process where residents would be encouraged to reimagine their lives and the future of the city for their children. While past relocation efforts have been less than successful, renewing “debates over local autonomy, eminent domain, and forced removal”, there are hopes that a phased, transparent, and collaborative process could result in more sustainable outcomes for coastal communities.

Climate change is affecting how we live. Are coastal cities ready to make hard choices to protect ther communities? And, if they can’t, will communities be ready for what’s to come?

Becoming a Local

For the past four years, I have been working as a researcher. Some people think they know what that means: a lot of reading, thinking, writing (and then repeat). But, you might not know that this actually means I get to (1) create and manage research projects (including budgets, schedules, workplans, and MOUs), (2) hire and mentor research assistants, (3) work with a wide variety of stakeholders to collect and analyze data, (4) apply for grants and fellowships to fund research expenses, and (5) communicate findings to lay and academic audiences. It’s a dynamic job where each day I get to find and create knowledge that helps others make sense of their work and relationships.

My research focuses on infrastructure delivery; specifically, on the stakeholder relationships, contracts, and financing/funding strategies that bring infrastructure projects from concept to construction. It is something that every community throughout the world must think about; and, I have been fortunate enough to work and research projects in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and North America. While I have written about large projects with lots of stakeholders and millions of dollars of investment, my favorite work has brought me to communities that are a little less recognized and projects that are a little less famous.

Every summer for the past three years, I have integrated myself in communities that have crowdfunded their own infrastructure projects. My dissertation is focusing on how local community leaders use crowdfunding platforms to deliver infrastructure projects. I go to these communities for at least two months to understand the impact of crowdfunding projects we generally believe should be delivered using tax dollars. To really understand the context and impact of using crowdfunding, I spend a lot of time interviewing people, both formally and informally. Most times, I email project stakeholders hoping they will spare an hour of their time. Other times, I meet community members at public meetings, art walks, pop-up restaurants, city-wide bike nights, local business nights, and community fairs. It’s a process that is all consuming. In just a couple months I must transition from being an outsider to a local resident. By comparing these experiences within and between communities, I get a better understanding of crowdfunding’s implication for infrastructure delivery.

This research requires me to learn about many different topics: multimodal transportation, equity in transportation, equitable development, public participation, community identity, race relations, economic development, partnership models, contract creation, community finance, equity shareholding, power dynamics, etc. These topics emerge from analyzing interview notes and transcriptions. I have heard about a business owner who sacrificed his own salary to make sure his employees got paid, a local oil company that invested in city-wide bike infrastructure, a previous convict who became a local entrepreneur and taught young men and women new skills, families that moved to underprivileged areas for the sole purpose of helping to build community instead of replace it, an architect who volunteered countless hours bringing community groups together to build public spaces. I could go on and on. Many of these stories sit in pages of research documents, oftentimes adding color to the papers I write. During the writing process, I feel obligated to do justice by these individuals who have entrusted me with their stories. And, if it all goes right, I get to paint a picture of how an idea of a project became much more than a new piece of infrastructure. I get to talk about how these projects serve and transform their communities by increasing connectivity, improving safety, and catalyzing the local economy.  

After two summers of doing this work in the United States, I decided to come to London where I am now living and conducting similar research. In 2013, the Mayor of London’s Office established Crowdfund London which sets money aside for projects that are being crowdfunded in London. This summer, the Mayor’s Office is holding it’s fifth round of Crowdfund London, where community leaders can launch crowdfunding campaigns and attract additional funding from the Mayor of London. As part of this work, I get to learn more about grassroots activism in London and the important role it is playing in shaping the built environment.