Think of Los Angeles and traffic-congested streets may come to mind. Taking up 15% of the city’s land, L.A.’s streets make up, by many measures, its largest public asset. So how could this resource be transformed from a gauntlet of gridlock into a network of safe public venues where communities, culture, and greenery can flourish?
The city is drawing on the community and crowdfunding to find out.
The L.A. Great Streets Challenge Grant, in partnership with civic crowdfunding site ioby, grew out of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative. When the latter launched in October 2013, the Mayor asked residents to help reimagine L.A.’s neighborhoods, from Pacoima to Mar Vista, one main street at a time. “With Great Streets,” says the mayor, “we are activating public spaces, providing economic revitalization, increasing public safety, increasing livability, and supporting great neighborhoods where Angelenos can come together as communities.”
As cities everywhere struggle to fund economic revitalization, the L.A. initiative points to a new, layered approach to funding
This past May, the Mayor’s office teamed up with ioby (which stands for in our backyard) to offer $200,000 in challenge grant funds to neighborhood leaders who proposed creative ways to rethink L.A.’s streets as public spaces. Over the summer, eight finalists were chosen (from a pool of 33 entrants) and given $10,000 each in starting funds by the Mayor’s office. Then they each ran a fundraising campaign on ioby, with the Mayor’s office matching public donations dollar for dollar. Most campaigns aimed for $10,000 in crowdfunding revenue, which would bring their total funds raised to $30,000 each.
In all, these local leaders succeeded in securing more than $245,000 in total funds to bring their projects to life, including more than $95,000 in citizen philanthropy and over $150,000 in grant funding and matching funds from Mayor Garcetti’s office.
As cities everywhere struggle to fund economic revitalization and quality of life improvements, this L.A. initiative points to a new, layered approach to funding.
For many of the organizations involved, which are used to relying on grant funding, it was a crash course in crowdfunding. “There’s no magic money tree when you crowdfund,” says Erin Barnes, Co-Founder and Executive Director of ioby. “All the principles and intricacies constitute a lot to learn, especially for first-time crowdfunders. So we really train people to use crowdfunding as a tool for local coalition-building.”
Here are a few of the challenge grant winners who are transforming L.A.’s streets:
Youth Envisioned Streets
“In South L.A., youth are out in the community on a daily basis more than any other segment of the population, making them prime catalysts for community change,” says Mia Arias of the National Health Foundation (NHF). “Kids are the voice of the neighborhood.”
That insight led Arias and her NHF colleague Alba Peñatoto to create YES (Youth Envisioned Streets), a project that aims to engage neighborhood kids in imagining and implementing street improvements that promote healthier lifestyles in this food- and health-challenged neighborhood. The youth will help dream up and design amenities like bike lanes, community gardens, and outdoor events.
“We’re getting these young people involved on all levels,” Arias explains. “They’ll be planning, engaging with our community partners, marketing, fundraising… They’ll know everything it takes to make something like this happen. We’re not going to just say, ‘Here, Tweet this.’ ”
The intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and West Florence Avenue in the Hyde Park neighborhood of L.A. is the meeting place of two wide, heavily used streets, five bus lines, tons of pedestrians, and of course, cars. The area sees so much action that it’s become one of the 20 most dangerous intersections in the county.
A number of local groups, including Ride On! Bicycle Co-op, the Community Health Council, T.R.U.S.T. South L.A., and Studio MMD, a local architecture firm, partnered to pitch a street safety project they call Street Beats. They’re organizing a free day-long public event in this major intersection, complete with interactive music experiments, food, art, and temporary pedestrian amenities—including a musical bus stop bench, where you can rest your legs and play a tune—to help inspire new community-led improvements. In addition, they’re planning a series of “visioning sessions” to solicit input and engage local residents in the planning process.
Adé Neff, leader of Street Beats and founder of Ride On!, says the event “is a chance to create a playground and invite people in to think about street safety and mobility.”
Nuestra Avenida: Cesar Chavez Reimagined
The Boyle Heights neighborhood, once heavily Jewish and now primarily Latino, is a fascinating, multicultural community with a rich history, just east of downtown Los Angeles. Both a landing and a jumping off place for immigrants over the years, it’s full of vibrant mom-and-pop shops. “Not your typical cookie cutter neighborhood,” explains Carlos Velásquez, Programs Committee Member with Multicultural Communities for Mobility (MCM), a local advocacy organization leading a project to improve Cesar Chavez Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare.
MCM is teaming up with local organizations such as YouthBuild, a local charter school with deep roots in community action, and Lot to Spot, an organization that works to empower neighborhoods, on the Nuestra Avenida: Cesar Chavez Reimagined project. They plan to host sidewalk workshops with residents, businesses, and community members to ask what kinds of changes they’d like to see on their blocks, followed by a demonstration day to stage the collected ideas and invite the community’s feedback about which ones should become permanent additions to Cesar Chavez Avenue.
“It’s much easier for people to comment on something that’s already there than to give them a blank piece of paper,” says Velásquez.
For him, neighborhood improvement is a personal issue. “Because of the place the Boyle Heights neighborhood holds in my Mexican immigrant history, it feels like somewhere I want to go back to, a place I have a connection to,” Velásquez says. “So it’s nice to go back and help make it a better place.”
Flipping the Model
The L.A. Great Streets Challenge Grant partnership is an example of the growing practice of tapping into community knowledge and ideas, rather than relying on top-down planning.
“We are thrilled to partner with the Challenge Grant winners, a brilliant group of community-based leaders from across Los Angeles,” says Lilly O’Brien, Great Streets Program Coordinator in the Mayor’s office. “In many ways, this partnership allows us to flip the traditional model of city planning on its head. In our new model, the community establishes a vision for their streets through temporary installations. Once the projects have gone through a tryout period with the community, the city finds resources to build their vision through local capital investments and crowdfunding.”
That kind of community involvement can help address some of the pushback that can come with traditional planning.
In the coming months, each project will come alive on the streets of the city. Interested neighbors can check in on the projects’ campaign pages to see their progress.
But even before these events take shape in public, the partnership has already made a big impact. Local leaders have stepped up to the plate and are stimulating huge investments in their communities; government, nonprofits, and individuals are working together to bring the best of their sectors to bear on common local concerns; and residents are shaping the future of their neighborhoods like never before. This is the kind of multifaceted local partnership that can work and is working in cities across the country, with win-win results.