Funding shortfalls are common among cities, as this year’s municipal elections have shown. While many governments are turning to public-private partnerships to fund expensive projects, they also work with community organizations, social enterprises, and non-profit groups to implement projects and run programs such as affordable housing for seniors and job placement services for youth. Crowdfunding could represent another aspect of cost-sharing that municipalities could use to help pay for services and projects that have strong support of municipal staff and the public. I’ve written before about participatory budgeting in Vancouver, Calgary, Guelph, and Toronto and posted last month about a crowdfunded bus proposal originating in Toronto’s Liberty Village.

RaiseanArm.org is a civic crowdfunding website created by Abdullah Mayo and the Hamilton Stewardship Council to give the public more of a say in public spending. Building on crowdsourced models common among start-ups and entrepreneurs which allow innovative ideas to find funding from many small donors online, the website aims to allow citizens to suggest ideas for the city. Spacehive in the UK, the world’s first civic crowdfunding site, currently has 359 projects such as recreation facilities, public art, and building restoration projects–50 are now fully funded. Citizeninvestor in the US features projects from $2,500 bike rack installations or tree planting all the way up to $200,000 public parks.

RaiseanArm has worked with the City of Hamilton to investigate the feasibility and legalities of crowdfunding in Ontario. RaiseanArm staff will bring ideas to the City to find out if the project is feasible or already being done in the Hamilton. If the idea were approved by the City, the project would be posted in the website and citizens would be able to pledge financial support or volunteer their services to get the project completed. While Mayo is excited to begin with local projects, he would like to gather support from across Canada and eventually expand to projects across the country.

Sheng Zhong recently defended her PhD dissertation at UBC School of Community and Regional Planning.  Last year at the Association of American Geographers annual conference, she gave us a little preview of her research results on cultural production sites in Shanghai, focusing on one of the seventy government-designated sites, M50 on Suzhou Creek. She also published this case study in the 2009 issue of Critical Planning (Vol 16): From Fabrics to Fine Arts: Urban Restructuring and Formation of an Art District in Shanghai. Her research consisted of extensive interviews, surveys and site visits of most of these former industrial sites now destined as high-end cultural centers. The concept of the creative class might be controversial here, but Sheng’s research shows the Chinese government is jumping on the bandwagon that supposedly leads to economic growth and development, as suggested by Richard Florida.

In Sheng’s doctoral defense, she contrasted two cultural production sites, one of which developed on its own, as artists found the low-rent buildings vacated by industries that had relocated to the suburbs. The second was designated by the government and targeted for redevelopment. The contrast between the two was very interesting: the first had grown illegally for some time as artists occupied the various buildings on the site, then over a decade gentrified to the point where rents are almost at the upper limit of affordability for small-scale production. The second site was initially designed with high-end stores and upscale landscape architecture targeted to foreign tourists. It is under-used (the rents are too high and there may not be enough demand for the location) and the artwork sold there is unaffordable to the Chinese population.

Dr. Zhong will be starting a post-doctoral position at the National University of Singapore, where she will continue her research on urban redevelopment and the policies that impact growth and change in Chinese cities.

Update: As of February 2012, Sheng will be a lecturer at the brand new Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, a joint effort of China’s Xi’an Jiaotong University and the UK’s Liverpool University.