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“You may say that I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” said John Lennon a long time ago. Natalia Garcia had a dream to travel to 12 world cities to see how it would be possible to live in a place designed for people – and not for cars. Natalia is a journalist and cyclist from São Paulo, Brazil. And Sao Paulo (as you might know), is a really terrible place for cyclists and pedestrians. So, she decided to turn her dream into reality, and left her job at Editora Abril to launch the project Cidades para Pessoas (Cities for People).
But to put her idea into practice, Natalia needed to raise enough money to travel a year abroad and write about her experience. After a meeting with Diego Reeberg, from Catarse, the first crowdfunding platform in Brazil for creative projects, which launched in January, she tapped the first wave of Brazilian crowdfunding platforms. After two months, 285 people contributed to her project and she received R$ 25,785 ($ 16,109) in funding. She is now living in Amsterdam, the second of 12 cities to be visited, after having spent one month in Copenhagen, the city that initially inspired Cities for People.
Natalia Garcia chose the cities to be visited based on the work of Danish architect Jan Gehl. In the 1960's, Gehl created a street in Copenhagen solely for pedestrians named Strøged, which quickly became the center of an effervescent movement of people walking and cycling. Today Copenhagen is the city with the largest number of commuting bicycles in the world.
Since then, the office of Jan Gehl was responsible for urban planning in several cities, including Melbourne, Stockholm, Lyon and Perth. Natalia Garcia chose to visit the cities planned by Jan Gehl or those suggested by him that followed a similar theme, including cities that are considered important for him. She focused on cities that think people first, then streets. And finally, buildings.
A little more than a month into her travels, Natalia Garcia shared some of what she’s already learned with me. Cities for People is a project that was only made possible because people believed in her dream. A dream that materialized through crowdfunding.
FG: Where are you now?
NG: I am in Amsterdam, the second largest of the 12 cities. The first one was Copenhagen.
FG: What has you learned so far?
NG: Well, I'll start with a simple example:
First, when we talk about "improving traffic", we are discussing the wrong thing. In any “pub talk” in Sao Paulo on how to improve towns, people conclude that it is impossible to live there without a car. I would no longer use my car if there was the a subway/underground system to get everywhere. Cycling is only for crazy guys, because of traffic and hills.
Secondly, urban planning does not necessarily make people happier. But poor urban planning certainly makes people unhappy.
Besides, the excess of urban planning is not so good either. Copenhagen, for example, is very organized. But I think it is necessary to have more people appropriating the public space and collaboratively participating in the improvement of the city.
And, finally, the Internet is an important and misused tool for civic engagement.
FG: What is the receptivity of the project?
NG: Super cool. The audience, actually, is a bit biased because I still do not have a very large audience! My readers are the project sponsors, my friends, acquaintances and family - for now. But all companies and partners who joined the project are enjoying it very much.
FG: Are the numbers of followers and fans growing?
NG: They increase every week. Modestly, it works. The Facebook page, for example, has only 400 followers. My Facebook profile has some 800 friends and the vast majority have come to me because of the project. Many people leave comments on the blog or send e-mails asking to be included on my mailing list.
FG: How are you paying for the rewards?
NG: Much of the rewards will be delivered after the end of the journey or during it. For example, the book that I am writing will be finished later. The posters of the cities will be produced by a designer friend from illustrations of each city. I've already received donated drawings in most cities.
FG: Do you feel that people are still connected? Do they also feel part of the project?
NG: Very much. I make a point [of this]. When I was going to interview Jan Gehl, the urbanist that has inspired the project, I asked all my sponsors and followers to send me questions addressed to him. And the great majority sent them. Every week they send me suggestions and references, and always make comments about my articles and share it through social networks. It is definitely a collaborative work.
FG: What does the project add to you?
NG: Imagine a job where every week you send an email to 300 people which starts with "Dear Sponsors." And they are really dear. It's incredible! I’m here searching for good ideas that can inspire people to participate in the process of improving their cities, which is amazing! I realize that many people want to improve the urban area where they live, but do not know how. So they decided to invest in Cities for People. They want to learn about initiatives, get answers to equations that seem to be difficult - unsolvable problems such as traffic, pollution, waste disposal, etc.
It seems like a Master degree for me. I’m getting in touch with several nice references, interviewing interesting people ... not to mention cycling in Copenhagen, which is one of the most marvelous world cities. It is safe. And you do not need to worry about cars... just enjoy the view.
FG: What is the most important thing that you can share?
NG: It is mega corny, but what I can share is if you have a project, make it happen. I have dozens of friends who are unhappy journalists in a newsroom, disillusioned with the profession and looking for something new. Partly because the profession is in crisis itself, but partly because of the reigning culture of laziness, especially in newsrooms. Reports are usually made by phone on subjects the reporters are not experts in at all, or literally hate them.
I would say that the most important thing I learned about the cities is: there is a solution to improve them. But it necessarily involves collaborative participation from the population and that the Internet is a tool that can be very effective.
By Flavio Gut
Flavio Gut is Crowdsourcing.org's correspondent in Brazil.
Flavio's experience includes executive editor of Agêncita Estado and newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, and reporter at Agência Folha, Agência Estado, and Jornal da Tarde. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org