Infrastructure & Environment

Portland's Testing a Greener Kind of P3

If it’s successful, it could drastically change how environmental projects are funded by states and localities.
November 2013
A rendering of the proposed Gateway Green project in Portland, Ore.
A rendering of the proposed Gateway Green project in Portland, Ore. International Mountain Bicycling Association

Portlanders want a world-class off-road bicycling park. As it happens, there’s an ideal, unused 38-acre parcel of partially wooded land on the east side of the Oregon city. Portland doesn’t have the cash to develop such a park, but that’s not stopping the state. It’s testing a new kind of public-private partnership to move the project, known as Gateway Green, forward. If it’s successful, it could drastically change how environmental projects are funded by states and localities.

In September, via a governor-appointed body called Oregon Solutions, the state partnered with crowdfunding site Indiegogo—similar to Kickstarter—to raise $100,000 for Gateway Green. The money will turn the master plan into the schematic designs needed to obtain building permits and construction financing. More than money, the campaign is about building momentum for the project. It’s an opportunity for backers to show that Gateway Green is worth putting real money behind. As Oregon Solutions Project Manager Jim Jacks told Bike Portland, officials need to “build a reservoir of support to get the thing built over time.”

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Online crowdfunding has been around for a little while. But it’s a new approach for governments, especially for environmental projects. Since the recession, revenue has primarily supported essential services; there hasn’t been extra for new parks, energy-efficient retrofits or renewable energies. So states and localities have had to get creative.

This past January, the crowdfunding site Mosaic debuted a platform that lets individuals invest in solar power. Billy Parish, Mosaic’s co-founder, sees the lack of a variety of alternative funding as the biggest constraint to clean energy growth. “If all we have are big banks, all we’re going to get is big energy,” Parish said in a TEDx talk in February. “If we want to see community-owned clean energy, we’re going to need a new kind of financial system. We’re going to need ... a system that looks more like an ecosystem.”

Enter California and New York. They worked with Mosaic to launch the platform in their states. Here’s how it works: Potential investors read facts about a prospective solar installation and decide whether to invest. If they back a project, their money is funneled to the developer. Mosaic charges investors a 1 percent “platform” fee annually. In turn, investors get part of their principal paid back to them monthly, plus interest.

As exciting as this idea is to many public officials, eco-crowdfunding raises questions. A project’s ability to attract Internet investors may not be the best way to determine how worthwhile it is to a city as a whole. And over-relying on crowdfunding could leave some more-necessary environmental projects behind. “At a time … when it is difficult enough to obtain funds,” Sierra Club columnist Bob Schildgen recently wrote in Sierra magazine, “there’s some danger that green crowdfunding might divert money and attention from worthy and credible efforts.”

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