Tech-savvy towns using crowdfunding to breath new life into high streets
(M2 PressWIRE Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) As high streets face increasingly stiff competition from online retailers, canny communities are turning to the web to breathe life back into Britains 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, the worlds first crowdfunding platform for civic improvements. Other corporates, including Tesco and Asda, have also contributed funding.
The aim is to rejuvenate the UKs 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, with the first on 15th 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 UKs innovation unit.
Spacehive.com is the worlds first 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 in 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 governments 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.
*The Experian/ATCM high street initiative at a glance:* *Initiative page on Spacehive:* www.spacehive.com/initiatives/towncentres *Delivery partner*: Association of Town Centre Management.
*Major funding contributors*: Experian, Mary Portas grants.
*Initiative supporters*: Department for Communities and Local Government, Business In The Community, Boots, Deloitte, British Property Federation, Royal Institute of British Architects, Meanwhile Space, BIG Lottery Fund, Locality.
Quotes: *Jan Barratt, Head of Community Involvement at Experian, said:* We are delighted to back this groundbreaking initiative, which brings a fresh approach to the challenge of how we safeguard the heart and soul of our towns.
Spacehive enables people to pitch great project ideas direct to the community, allowing the cost to be shared amongst everyone who benefits.
Its an entrepreneurial approach to transforming our towns, which we are pleased to support by offering funding.
The quality of our civic environment, now more than ever, is key to giving high streets their competitive edge.
Internet shopping might be able to offer free delivery and near-infinite choice, but it cant offer bustling markets, quirky shops, relaxing green spaces, or magical Christmas lights. This initiative all about creating those great places to be.
Chris Gourlay, Founding Director of Spacehive, said:
Theres a lot of gloom mongering about the death of the high street but this crowdfunding initiative fuelled by cash from Experian has real potential to give them a new lease of life.
High streets cant compete with the convenience of online shopping: their future depends on making them fantastic places to visit fun, attractive and distinctive.
This initiative aims to love bomb our high streets with imaginative improvement projects from pop-up shops and pocket parks to food markets and free WiFi.
Communities are teeming with fantastic ideas. And between local people, businesses, and the government the money is out there to make things happen. Spacehive brings the pieces together.
Martin Blackwell, chief executive of ATCM, said:
The traditional model of regeneration has been top down dependent on either very large amounts of government or private sector funding.
Crowdfunding on the other hand, embraces a community-driven approach, aiming to make a series of significant, if smaller-scale, changes by raising cash from many more sources. Contributions can be as little as 10.
It is a very direct way for local people to help improve their local town centres.
The response to the Mary Portas review was extremely positive. People clearly care about their high streets. Spacehive makes it easier for towns to deliver the improvements they want by allowing them to top up the limited amount of funding available from the government.
Liz Peace, Chief Executive of the British Property Federation, said: "With vacant shops at an all time high, landlords are facing up to the fact that town centres will never look the same again. But without retail tenants paying rent, budgets for investment in much-needed local improvements are drying up - which is why tapping into new sources of financing is a win-win for locals, landlords and government.
A vibrant public realm is an essential ingredient of any successful development and, fundamentally, an extremely cost effective way of enhancing an area's appeal. Getting emotional as well as financial buy in from local people has long been the holy grail of Localism. This, combined with the economic climate, is creating a perfect storm for embracing the crowdfunding model."
Peter Aldous, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Architecture and Planning, said:
"Crowdfunding is a great way to bring in outside finance from companies like Experian, to ensure that local shopping areas remain vibrant. It helps put planning back in the hands of local people, where it belongs."
Michael Green, Chief Executive of the British Council of Shopping Centres, said:
Retail centres are the heart of communities right up and down the UK and throughout the recession weve seen an immense amount of flexibility from landlords in supporting occupiers and helping maintain vibrant shopping districts. Public space is something we all share and crowdfunding is a fantastic way of binding many groups together around a shared interest.
Using the Web in a creative an innovative way to drive footfall could make a real difference and were delighted to offer our backing to Spacehive and to creative groups up and down the country.
Sarah Nelson, head of Mansfield Business Improvement District, said:
Mansfield Town Team is very excited to have successfully crowdfunded a free WIFI network for the town, with support from Experian. Were the first town in the UK to crowdfund a WiFi network and the project will boost Mansfield's vibrancy and competitiveness.
We were disappointed that we failed to receive a Portas grant, but it opened up an exciting new opportunity for us to achieve our goal, which we have now done.
Simon Reevell, MP for Dewsbury, said:
"I welcome the crowdfunding contribution to Dewsbury's Northgate project.
This is a really worthwhile idea that will help to further improve Dewsbury's town centre"
Oliver O'Dell, chief executive of High Wycombe Business Improvement District (using Spacehive to convert an empty shop into an start-up incubator), said:
Our project is unashamedly about growing our own future entrepreneurs as we strive to diversify our high street, build upon the vast experience of our local independent businesses and challenge the aspirations of our young people. This project will hopefully set the tone for the kind of creativity and innovation that we want to bring to High Wycombe over the next five years and how we want to foster an increased level of civic ownership of our town.
Gabrielle Omar, BBC Apprentice entrepreneur and architecture campaigner, said:
Being an architect and a creative, I have a passion for putting people at the heart of great design and architecture. That's why I am so excited about working with Spacehive, as they work to unlock the creativity and entrepreneurialism of communities determined to improve the towns and cities we live in.
Spacehive recognises that the architecture and planning world needs an overhaul. Its time the industry became more accessible, community-oriented, and fun.
If they get it right, well have the kind of high streets, parks and play spaces that communities feel really proud of. It's an appealing prospect and one which everyone can help make happen.
Gabrielle Omar (commenting on the project she is leading a new incubator for startups in High Wycombe):
City centres are becoming clones of one another, with the same mix of commercial chains and empty units lining our streets.
This project will inject some much-needed creativity and fresh blood back into our high streets, cunningly using one of the voids left by the recession to create a launch pad for a new generation of sparky entrepreneurs.
It's an idea which will harness the underused young talent, on which the future prosperity of our high streets depend.
Eddy Bridgeman, founder of Meanwhile Space, said:
"Were thrilled to see Spacehive tailoring its services to provide an extra support for high streets.
This initiative has the potential to provide a real boost to projects large and small that are seeking to breathe new life into our towns."
Victoria Thornton OBE, Founding Director of Open House (the global initiative that provides annual access to thousands of architecturally interesting buildings usually closed to the public) said:
The irony of public space is that whist the public can freely access it, theyre rather beholden to Councils when it comes to changing things.
Spacehive transforms this dynamic by enabling communities to drive forward popular project ideas by backing them financially - an immensely powerful way of demonstrating public support.
I founded Open House because I wanted to open up some of the most extraordinary privately-owned places in our cites to ordinary people. Over 20 years later, Spacehive in a more abstract way is on a similar mission to open up our public spaces. Im delighted to support them.
A spokesman for Boots said:
"Doing the right thing by communities means engaging them in activities that can make a real difference. Vibrant town centres are the corner stone of our lives - and of our business - and if we can nurture a public/private sector dialogue and bring talents and people together, everyone can benefit.
Our commitment to corporate social responsibility has reaped real benefits to Boots and its customers, and using new technology like this to engage people in our communities is a logical step to take."
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