There are two processes in the public sphere that we all depend on but that few of us really understand. And what’s worse is that both are in trouble.
The first is the process of funding public projects. Public financing often involves a mix of taxation and the issuance of bonds or federal grantmaking to municipalities, counties and regions. Politicians so often pass it off to their constituents as a simple process: vote Yes on A, sales tax will rise a bit, this project will come. But without fail, there’s a complicated interworking of unreadable legislation, complex court decisions, backroom deals that no ordinary citizen could possibly follow. It’s a necessary process – but one that needs work (enter, Sunlight Foundation!).
The second process is “placemaking.” Simply put, placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It’s how we shape our new parks, stadia and bike lanes and how we stitch them together into cohesive, quality places. In our hometown of Kansas City, it’s how we got the beautiful Country Club Plaza district. In D.C., it’s how the National Mall developed. Placemaking processes today usually (hopefully) involve participation and input from the public, perhaps moderated by an urban planner at a public meeting. A vision, plan or project design usually results from that public meeting. But key to an effective placemaking process is that social and political capital is created: It’s the “buy-in” from the public and politicians that, first, brings the allocation of financial capital by the public-funding process described above and that later sees out a vision’s successful implementation and healthy success.
Placemaking is and will be crucial to the continued progress of places like U Street in D.C. and the resurgent downtown Kansas City. Sadly though, the process – like that of public finance – is often poorly understood. It suffers from its own kind of obscurity. Its subversion by politics is not uncommon.
So concerned citizens and leaders across the nation have faced a dilemma: Broadly, how to harness the two troubled processes in order to bring about positive change in cities and communities. This challenge is complicated by the fact that public resources are dwindling, even as the demand for solutions to urban problems is higher than ever.
This is where Neighbor.ly comes in. Neighbor.ly is a new online civic funding platform for communities that we launched two years ago, to change placemaking. The platform works in three major ways – where communities are connected with funding sources, companies with earned media and citizens with community projects they care about.
Our model was based on those of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Community organizations can submit projects they need funding to our site and visitors can give to the projects they think are most deserving. If projects are funded, they can then move ahead – and their donors can even get perks (just like on other crowdfunding platforms).