From Times Square to Brooklyn Bridge Park, we’ve given a lot of recent attention to major projects and big controversies in New York City -- attention that can sometimes eclipse the encouraging stories of small neighborhood projects that are taking place every day. Last week PPS visited ioby’s national headquarters in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where we were given an inspiring tour of some these small-scale, community-funded and maintained projects in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Founded in 2009, ioby (“in our backyards”) is a crowd-resourcing platform that helps neighborhood advocates turn ideas for their community into a reality. Their groundbreaking web-based tool combines crowd-funding and resource organizing to support resident-led projects that help turn our shared public spaces into places that are safer, greener, and simply more fun.
"We believe that residents have this really important bundle of information about their own neighborhoods. They know about the built environment, they understand the social fabric, and they can make better decisions about how to use public spaces than anyone else... They’ve got history, they’ve got knowledge, and they’re going to be around to steward those places in the long-term too." - Erin Barnes, ioby Co-Founder and Executive Director
With a particular focus on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, ioby has supported projects in over 100 cities, and they refer to these small-scale, hyper-local, low-to-no-budget, and relatively informal efforts as the “Deep Roots.” “We’re interested in cities that are searching for new ways to support community-led and place-based projects that build leadership capacity, improve street safety, fight public healthy epidemics like obesity and asthma, strengthen sharing economies, and promote social and environmental justice.” Here are three leading examples in our own neck of the woods:
Fix This Public Space / 4th and 9th
The 9th Street subway station on 4th Avenue is located on one of the busiest roads in Brooklyn, and it is an important gateway that connects three lively neighborhoods: Park Slope, Boerum Hill, and Gowanus. Despite this key location, the area is gray, uninviting, and generally unsafe for pedestrians and bikers—it lacks the greenery, seating, and vibrant commercial activity that many nearby streets enjoy.
Last November, with funding from ioby, local residents and activists Grace Freedman and SJ Avery (pictured above, middle and right), along with the Forth on Fourth Ave (FOFA) committee of Park Slope Civic Council, helped organize a pop-up event to promote positive changes for the diverse Fourth Avenue community. “Our goal,” Freedman describes, “is to provide an active forum and voice for people who live, work and make use of Fourth Avenue in order to identify and address community concerns.”
For the “Fix This Public Space Day of Action," local participants installed temporary lighting and street furniture along with colorful wayfinding signage, discussion boards, and murals as a way to show residents and business owners (as well as the MTA and other city agencies) the vast potential of this underused space. Since the event, MTA has already made some street-level improvements at the 4th Ave/9th St transit hub, and plans are in the works to install temporary public artwork in and around the station.
Until recently, the area just outside the Parkside Station in Brooklyn's Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood was drab and colorless. Located just across the street from beautiful Prospect Park, the corner gets foot traffic from thousands of commuters every day. But after 50 years of neglect, the wide concrete patch was a struggling public space with big promise but no vision.
In 2011, the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership teamed up with local residents and businesses, along with NYC DOT, to begin mapping plans for what is now a cherished and thriving public plaza. With continuing help from ioby, the newly imagined Parkside Plaza officially opened on May 2, 2015, and it is now home to planters, flowers, benches, tables, and umbrellas for shade. An immediate success, the rejuvenated space also holds frequent programs and cultural activities including a portable library and reading room, and it is now host to a GrowNYC Greenmarket (held every Sunday until November 22) where local producers sell fresh vegetables, fruits, plants, herbs, eggs, honey, meats, fresh-cut flowers, yarn, fleeces, baked goods, and Caribbean specialty crops like callaloo.
While its initial infrastructure was generously provided by NYC DOT, in order for the plaza to continue serving the community, its maintenance will rely completely on volunteers and local fundraising efforts.
Sustainable Flatbush / CAMBA Gardens
Even though New York has an impressive number of parks and recreation facilities, along with more than 700 farms and gardens, many communities, such as Brooklyn's densely populated Flatbush neighborhood, still lack adequate access to open green space. To address these issues, along with the growing prevalence of associated health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and physical inactivity, the mission of Sustainable Flatbush is to "bring neighbors together to mobilize, educate, and advocate for sustainable living in our Brooklyn neighborhood and beyond."
In 2013, Sustainable Flatbush raised funds on ioby to transform a 340 square foot open space into a community-run culinary and medicinal herb garden which included over 30 varieties of herbs, tiered raised beds, vertical wall gardens, a rainwater harvest system, as well as many educational events and tutorials on the uses and benefits of herbs as food and medicine.
Along with providing access to fresh and healthy food, community gardens can also generate important social ties, spur neighborhood development, and create opportunities for physical activity and education in neighborhoods that are ill-served or otherwise lacking in open green space. The success of the Healing Herb Garden has since inspired a partnership between Sustainable Flatbush and CAMBA Gardens, a permanent supportive housing complex in Wingate, Brooklyn, to co-create a garden along with the resident community as part of their Growing Healthy Initiative.
Beyond fundraising alone, these projects are about mobilizing all of the resources in a community to have a direct impact. As each of these examples show, the process of fundraising isn’t just a means to an end, but it can also be a placemaking tool in and of itself. Getting members of the community to put a financial stake in the project, no matter how small, is a great way to build each individual’s investment -- both economic and emotional. It’s about building place capital at the smallest scale.
As digital pioneers in this field, ioby also tracks data on how many of their donors are are further involved with the project. And the evidence of its success is in the numbers - 53% of ioby donors to also volunteer their time and labor on projects. The results have been remarkable.
“When you give community members autonomy – when you give them a place," explained Sheryll Durrant, Urban Farm & Garden Program Director at Sustainable Flatbush, "you’ll be amazed at the wealth of knowledge that community holds."