The Chula Vista Living Laboratory Community Garden raised $2,425 on ioby in a partnership with the Center for New American Dream to make their community garden an authentic community space.

Courtesy of ioby

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It Takes a Village: Crowdfunding Neighborhood Improvement

From projects as simple as a tool-sharing program to an innovative cycle track that will connect isolated parts of a city, ioby is kick-starting sustainable community development and civic engagement across the country.

For decades, Binghampton, a neighborhood on the east side of Memphis, Tenn., has been known for little more than crime and urban blight. After it was cruelly bisected by an expressway in the 1960s, the area was abandoned by motorists and pedestrians; guidebooks advised tourists to avoid it altogether. “Here’s a community that was cut off from its center, and its residents cut off from services,” says Sarah Newstok, program managerat Livable Memphis, a nonprofit devoted to revitalizing the Bluff City. “This was a Bermuda Triangle of infrastructure investment.”

Now, at last, real investment is on the way. In February 2014, construction crews broke ground on the Hampline: a two-mile cycle track that will connect Binghampton to nearby parks and trails, and bring much-needed traffic and economic activity to local storefronts as early as this fall. And while Newstok says the cycle track’s protected lanes should make it one of the “safest and most innovative” in the country, the Hampline’s design isn’t its only noteworthy attribute — equally remarkable is how it was funded. While the bulk of the money came through the usual avenues of city grants and foundations, the last $69,000 of the $4.5 million project was raised via ioby, a crowdfunding platform that’s helping to launch environmental and community development initiatives around the country through microfinance.

Crowdsourcing might seem an unusual way to fund urban infrastructure, but ioby (the company’s name is always written with lower-case letters) is making it work. The nonprofit was started by three friends — Erin Barnes, Brandon Whitney and Cassie Flynn — who had moved to New York City after graduating from an environmental master’s program at Yale University in 2007. Although all three came to New York to pursue environmental careers, it wasn’t long before they all felt disillusioned with the green movement. “All too often, environmentalism seems to deal with things that are really far away — deforestation in the Amazon or melting glaciers,” says Barnes, now 33. “We kept hearing people say, ‘What can I do personally?’”

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Over drinks in 2007, the trio discussed the need for a more relevant green vision — one with an urban focus. When another acquaintance, a researcher at the U.S. Forest Service, showed them data about the thousands of volunteer groups laboring to maintain city parks, the friends saw an opportunity to put their burgeoning philosophy into practice. “There was all this energy in the city, but these groups had such tiny budgets,” says Whitney, 31. “We thought there had to be a way to connect people and resources.”

To make it happen, Barnes, Whitney and Flynn borrowed a model from Donor’s Choose, a New York nonprofit that allows individuals to donate to projects in public schools. (The term “crowd-funding” didn’t even exist yet, says Whitney, so the friends gave their system the not-so-snappy name “online micro-philanthropy.”) In 2009, they launched a prototype, calling it ioby, a site where individuals or groups could post project descriptions and fundraising goals and interested donors could contribute money or manpower. The name ioby is an acronym for “in our backyards,” a play on the oft-heard phrase “not in my backyard” (NIMBY).

At first, ioby’s founders weren’t sure whether their prototype would work — would elderly community gardeners, not the web-savviest demographic, really raise money through the Internet? But bolstered by countless meetings and training sessions, groups concerned about parks and gardens around the city began raking in donations. Some of the successes proved transformative: In the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, for instance, ioby helped the Green Alliance, a local community-improvement organization, raise money to shut down 78th Street to traffic during the summer months and turn it into a recreation area. Word spread, and requests began trickling in from urban gardeners around the country: Could ioby make its platform available outside of New York?

On Earth Day 2012, the group opened its site to aspiring crowdfunders nationwide; today, ioby has projects in 61 cities, from Seattle to Durham. The organization also began approaching cities about more comprehensive institutional partnerships. “We wanted to reach places where there’s no real infrastructure for environmental activities — the American South and the post-industrial Rust Belt,” says Barnes, ioby’s executive director. In 2013, that meant forming a partnership with Miami, a city that’s been ranked as the least civically engaged in the country, to revitalize public space. Ioby’s now collaborating with OpenPlans, a technology nonprofit that works with cities and planners, to crowdsource potential projects in the city — which include creating an exercise park designed expressly for people with mental and physical challenges and installing children’s swing sets underneath a downtown monorail.

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Memphis, where decades of blight have left behind an estimated 80,000 abandoned properties, was a natural site for ioby’s next partnership. When ioby and Livable Memphis first discussed paying for a portion of the Hampline through micro-donations,Newstok was cautious about setting a precedent in which nonprofits solved problems that were the rightful responsibility of city government. But those concerns were trumped by the sense of community ownership that came with more than 500 local donations. “We’ve been able to say to elected officials, ‘look, we don’t want to delay this project, and we’re going to put our money where our mouth is,’” Newstok says. “That’s a big, big message.”

In addition to the Hampline, ioby and Livable Memphis are collaborating on a bevy of smaller initiatives, including a tool-sharing program at a sustainable farming academy, a smartphone app to help cyclists find greenways and a project to install solar panels on 30 municipal buildings. Ioby’s efforts are flourishing beyond Memphis, too: So far, the organization has raised nearly three-quarters of a million dollars and fully funded 282 projects nationwide. And while ioby doesn’t keep track of spilled sweat, there’s been plenty of that as well — more than half the people who donate to projects also volunteer to implement them.

As ioby has grown, its founders have come to reject the environmental label, and the social baggage it carries, altogether. While Whitney, the group’s chief operating officer, acknowledges that many ioby projects still have a sustainability bent, he says that the leaders behind them don’t consider themselves “green” — they’re just folks trying to improve their communities. “We imagine a national network where anybody with an idea for their neighborhood can connect to share expertise and ideas,” he says. “We want to be a hub for people creating more livable cities.”

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Ben Goldfarb is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications that include The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine and Earth Island Journal.