As high streets face increasingly stiff competition from online retailers, canny communities are turning to the web to breathe life back into Britain's fading town centres. Towns are fighting back using "crowdfunding" to raise money for much-needed regeneration projects, from revived street markets and "pocket parks" created on derelict plots, to free public WiFi.
The model allows hundreds of local people, businesses, and the council to pledge contributions online, which are only collected if projects go ahead. To fuel local fundraising, Experian, the global information services company, is pumping thousands into projects posted on Spacehive.com, claimed to be the world's first crowdfunding platform for civic improvements. Other corporates, including Tesco and Asda, have also contributed funding. The aim is to rejuvenate the UK's increasingly lifeless town centres with imaginative projects that boost visitor appeal.
Experian is making available funds of £100k over a year, which will be added directly into the funding thermometers of the most imaginative projects ideas when they are posted on Spacehive.com. Funding will be awarded in quarterly competitions (the first took place on 15 January).
The groundbreaking collaboration - a world first – comes as figures show visitor numbers to high streets have fallen by 10% the last 3 years alone. Over the same period investment in public realm improvements has plummeted by an estimated 60%. The drive is being led by the Association of Town Centre Management (ATCM) – whose members are responsible for the wellbeing of 600 towns across the UK - with backing from the Department of Communities and Local Government. ATCM expect the crowdfunding drive to stimulate over £3m of investment into low cost, high-impact projects within the first year.
Three projects have already received at total of £7k from Experian. They include a £37k free public WiFi network for Mansfield, Nottinghamshire; a £350 new "pocket park" created on a derelict plot in Dewsbury town centre; and the £60k conversion of an empty shop in High Wycombe into startup incubator for local young entrepreneurs. Both the WiFi network and pocket park projects have subsequently hit their funding goals.
Projects are blending a diverse mix of funding sources, from Experian and Portas grants, to local pharmacies, pubs and individual residents. Since emerging in America three years ago, the crowdfunding phenomenon has grown at an extraordinary pace. Last year over £1.2bn was raised via crowdfunding platforms worldwide and by 2016 crowdfunding will be worth £14bn in the UK alone, according to forecasts by Nesta, the UK's innovation unit.
The Spacehive.com crowdfunding platform designed specifically for civic projects. The model echoes the Victorian-era tradition of public subscription, which saw millions of proud citizens share the cost of new parks and statues. Since launching last March, the award-winning platform has received broad backing from the planning world, corporates and community groups. Successfully funded projects range from a £760k new community centre in South Wales to a £400 public art installation in East London. Project funders are only charged if the scheme goes ahead – a model that aims to break the development inertia caused by the downturn.
The high street crowdfunding drive is being backed major national bodies including the British Property Federation, Royal Institute of British Architects, and British Council of Shopping Centres. While dozens of towns received £10k grants as part of the government's Mary Portas review, many say the sums are too small to make a difference. Towns like High Wycombe are now using Spacehive to "top up" their grant. Projects are a diverse mix. In Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, locals used Spacehive to successfully fund the £37k installation of an open wi-fi network for the town. In Edinburgh, a resident has turned a derelict red phone box into mini art gallery after 100 locals chipped in around £20 each.
In High Wycombe, Gabrielle Omar, the BBC Apprentice entrepreneur and architect is to mobilise her Twitter followers behind a new £60,000 project to convert an empty shop into a startup incubator for young entrepreneurs. And in the market town of Amersham, Buckinghamshire, a campaign is underway to "re-Sycamorise" Sycamore Road, the town high street which was stripped of its namesakes by a cost-conscious council. The funding drive is being led by a passionate local resident, the Vice President of RIBA.