Local Government Magazine

IOBY – In Our Back Yards

US crowdfunding initiative IOBY is the antithesis of NIMBYism. It looks for the positive in communities, one tiny project at a time. What’s more, it may tap into much deeper currents to help build civic participation and long-term community resilience. Ruth Le Pla reports.

Erin Barnes

After September 11 in New York, nonprofit organisation New Yorkers for Parks handed out free daffodil bulbs to residents. The idea was to have the bulbs bloom all at once across the city. Come springtime, flowers burst from tiny nooks and crannies. In previously-bare scraps of earth, around lone street trees and squished into old planter boxes, a sea of yellow flowers bloomed.

It was meant as a memorial to those who died in the 9/11 tragedy. It was meant to connect people to their identity as New Yorkers, and to signal strength and sympathy. But it also showed how much New Yorkers are interested in caring for tiny spaces in their city, says Erin Barnes.

Indirectly, it unleashed the IOBY movement. IOBY stands for In Our Back Yards. It’s the positive opposite of NIMBY-ism. It’s the antithesis of the angry, blocking, reactive dynamic that often characterises community-council relationships. And it uses miniscule baby-steps to effect change.

Erin Barnes is one of IOBY’s founders and its executive director. Speaking at the NZ Planning Institute (NZPI) annual conference in Tauranga recently, Erin says IOBY puts residents at the centre of decision-making and leading ideas for change.

Its philosophy, she says, mirrors that of writer and activist Jane Jacobs who believed that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they’re created by everybody”.

“Many community engagement processes don’t do a great job of involving residents,” says Erin. “Decisions are often made by the people who have the most technical expertise or power.”

After the daffodil initiative, a US Forest Service urban field station study identified some 3000 tiny groups taking care of pocket parks, strips of grass and tree beds across New York City. Tellingly, it showed that more than 70 percent of those groups were run by volunteers and more than half of the groups had shoestring budgets of less than US$1000 a year.

Enter IOBY, whose cofounders saw a need to support such groups through small-scale funding initiatives via a crowd-funding platform.

In practice, it means anyone can trigger a campaign to raise money to help calm traffic near a local school, or buy a lawnmower to keep berms tidy or a tin of paint for a community mural.

While IOBY works right across the US, it puts organisers on the ground in those urban centres where it believes the need is greatest.

Erin says IOBY tends to work in the “overlooked spots”. “In New York City, for instance, 80 percent of public spaces are streets, so a lot of projects take place in the streets.

“In a lot of cities where we work, public spaces are vacant properties: an abandoned home, an empty lot or an underused surface parking lot. We’re trying to bring attention to the disparity between public spaces and public good in cities.”

Data shows many such local initiatives are about communities giving themselves a hand up. Contrary to popular expectations, more than half of total charitable dollars donated in the US comes from the lowest-earning third of households. Time and again, IOBY’s own research shows local people give locally.

IOBY co-founder Erin Barnes says she is often asked whether the government should be doing the work that her organisation has taken on.
She says it is important for government to shoulder responsibility for large infrastructure projects such as roads, pipes and water. But she argues that small-scale IOBY projects such as “making sure basketball courts have nice striping on them so kids know where the three-point line is” can “fill in the gaps for now when government can’t step up”.
She adds that voter turnout in the US is low. “Even if everyone did vote, it’s important to know that democracy requires more than just voting and protesting. Small acts of civic participation help flex that muscle, so people know they should practise being a citizen, showing up and doing things for civic life every day.”
Finally, she says governments often use “cookie cutter” solutions that may have worked in one city but are not appropriate for another. “A lot of communities require different things.” (See the box story below.)


When IOBY asked communities what would make their streets safer, it received a wide variety of responses. “One solution doesn’t fit all,” says co-founder Erin Barnes.
“I thought I’d heard it all until somebody said, ‘the wild dogs really keep me out of the streets’.
I hadn’t thought about wild dogs.” Here are five examples of community responses to safer streets.
1 One mum used orange flags to alert high-speed traffic to kids crossing a road to a local park.
2 A community in Los Angeles saw people’s preference for driving, rather than walking, as the biggest threat to public health. They turned a street intersection into a musical station. “They thought if they made a ‘piano’ on the crosswalk that you could play with your feet, people might just walk more,” says Erin. “Now everything you do when you’re crossing the street plays music.”
3 In Detroit, two women started the Hollaback initiative to address verbal harassment and catcalling on the streets. “Women felt unsafe and didn’t want to walk in downtown Detroit because people were calling them names.”
4 In Highland Park, Detroit, lighting was taken off the streets after the city went bankrupt. “Neighbours created a cooperative to own solar-powered street lamps so no-one could ever take away their power.”
5 Alternatively, for a dark-sky community in Utah, safety meant eliminating light pollution. “They wanted to be able to see the Milky Way,” says Erin. “So they fundraised a few tens of thousands of dollars on IOBY to take down their street lamps.”


Erin adds that research shows only eight to 11 percent of Americans are civically-engaged. “Most people have the motivation to stand up and do something for their community when they’re angry or upset that something is going to happen to their neighbourhood,” she says. “That’s when you get NIMBYism.

“But that stops everything in its tracks and makes it hard for communities to work with government. It also makes governments tired of working with communities and hard for community members to work with each other because everybody’s pretty angry.”

So IOBY, says Erin, focuses on working with people who have positive solutions for their communities.

“IOBY is interested in breaking down barriers, such as lack of funding, that stand in the way of this happening.”

Erin adds that when citizens participate in building their communities from the ground up they’re also building civic strength. “In the event of a disaster, people are already knit together and connected, and more able to figure out solutions.”

Erin cites three examples of IOBY community projects.


Binh Dam & the bus stop signs

Atlanta, Georgia is the ninth largest US city in terms of population, with some 5.8 million people living in the wider metropolitan area. The inner city, however, covers just 347 square kilometres while the rest of the city sprawls out widely. Provision of transport services deteriorates towards the edges of the city.

Atlanta’s population has grown by 15 to 40 percent every decade since 1910. The current population is about 50 percent white, 32 percent black and 10 percent Latino.

Erin tells the story of Binh Dam, a current IOBY leader who had emigrated to the US to finish his PhD in science and technology at Georgia Tech. An avid user of public transport, Binh would take the bus to work and school every day.

Binh had previously lived in Paris, where it was standard to have bus timetables available at every stop.

“Incredibly,” says Erin, “Atlanta didn’t do that. It just said, ‘Bus stop’. The information that you would expect to have in regular transit, such as what bus is coming next and when, was totally absent.”

One night, when Binh was coming home from a concert, there was a service interruption on the bus line. In response, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) had zip tied to the bus stop sign a plastic bag with a piece of paper inside. It read, ‘Service interruption’. MARTA gave no further clues.

Binh saw his chance to act. He raised US$534 on IOBY’s crowdfunding platform and used the money to print paper bus schedules, insert them into plastic bags and zip tie them to each of the 52 bus stops on the line.

Erin says a lot of IOBY projects happen before they receive a permit from local authorities. So next morning, she was expecting a phone call from MARTA saying they’re going to give Binh a slap on the wrist.

“As it turns out, they were delighted. The transit authority thought this was the most amazing idea ever. They decided to create a volunteer corps in honour of Binh Dam asking other volunteers to follow in his footsteps and keep doing this.”

Erin shows a picture of the ‘official authorised-by-the-city-agency’ group of volunteer leaders.

“This is 2015 or 2016,” she says. “You know, there are smart phones: we’re talking about modern-day America right now. But this was the most innovative thing you could possibly imagine. And look how happy these nerds are. These are the biggest transit nerds I’ve ever seen in my life. So delighted.”

MARTA asked volunteers to take selfies while they’re hanging up the bus schedules and tweet them out.

“So, they did,” says Erin. “Look at all of these selfies and the bus schedules everywhere. This one is my favourite: ‘Let the revolution begin’. It’s just pieces of paper in plastic bags. Guys, this is amazing. Oh, this is incredible. It’s incredible that a transit authority would be this excited and open-minded about something like this.”

But what happened next was really interesting, says Erin. “This volunteer corps – the MARTA Army as they call themselves – kept working together and became better organised over time.

“Last year, one of the highways in Atlanta collapsed and nobody could drive to work. A couple of hundred thousand people were taking the subway who had never walked inside a subway station before and they had no idea what to do.

“So, the transit authority asked the MARTA Army if they would go and help. ‘Where are you going? Let me help you read the map. I need you to take the little card and you go like this.’ And they assisted people through their first transit experiences.

“That,” says Erin, “shows the power of what happens when people are well organised and have worked together before.”


James & the lawnmower

Memphis, Tennessee is a majority-black city with a population of around 650,000. It’s a poor city with a median household income of just US$32,000 a year.

Back in 1960, most people were living inside the city’s urban core. Fast forward to 2000, and people had spread out. The population shift created large numbers of vacant lots – sometimes whole blocks – in the urban core.

James Alsobrook is a community volunteer in a garden called Carnes, very close to downtown.

“In other cities, Carnes would probably be a major commercial and residential hub because it’s close to the city hall,” Erin notes.

“James is a super-dedicated volunteer. If you look at pictures on the Carnes garden website, you’ll notice James is in every single one of them. He shows up every single day, just doing what he can.

“Then one day IOBY got a campaign proposal called ‘We want to buy James a lawnmower’.”

James had been using his own lawnmower to look after the grass at Carnes. He’d also trim the grass at adjacent vacant properties up and down the block just to try and keep the area looking better.

Then somebody stole his lawnmower. The neighbours got together to raise money to buy a new one.

“This is what the budget was for,” says Erin. “It was very specific. US$399 for the lawnmower. US$120 for a chain and lock. US$15 for a gas can and US$8 for a sharpening tool.”

Erin says many nonprofit organisations and government programmes focus on neighbourhoods like Carnes due to high rates of diabetes and unemployment, and concerns about education and population loss.

“Despite all the attention paid to this neighbourhood, no government programme would ever make sure James had a new lawnmower,” she says. “Why? Because he’s just a person. And, in general, we don’t trust [individual] people in the US. I don’t think anybody would really think that was the highest use of any public funding, either.

“But people in that neighbourhood knew that James having a lawnmower meant all the vacant lots on that block would be mowed every single day. Everybody would have a little bit more pride in what they were doing. Small incremental growth really mattered to people in that neighbourhood.”

James got his lawnmower.


The Bridge that Bridges

Cleveland, Ohio used to be a manufacturing city with a ton of wealth. Home to the Rockefeller family, it received large investment in beautiful libraries and public spaces. The Rockefellers made sure trees were planted and some neighbourhoods today still benefit from their lasting beauty.

But when the manufacturing industries failed, Cleveland suffered substantial loss of jobs, wealth and ultimately population. It endured one of the most rapid population declines of any US city. Its current population of just 385,000 celebrates that fewer people left town in the past 10 years than in the previous decade.

Geographically small, the city spans just 213 square kilometres. The Cuyahoga River, which runs through the city, used to be so polluted that it caught fire in 1967 – an event which led to the creation of the US Clean Water Act.

Erin says that, today, Cleveland is a city of two halves, divided by highways through its centre that split neighbourhoods in two.

One side of the main highway enjoys the majority of the anchor institutions such as hospitals and universities and has benefited from considerable investment.

In contrast, neighbourhoods on the other side are low-income. There’s a lot of population loss and vacancy in the urban core.

“Before, those areas were tightly integrated,” says Erin. “Had a highway not been built, there would have been a far better opportunity to share some of the prosperity across those neighbourhoods. But there is one bridge.

Groups of neighbours from both sides of the highway got together and started talking about ways that they could bring their two neighbourhoods together.

“Together, they decided they were literally going to use the bridge over this gigantic highway to be The Bridge that Bridges. They started an IOBY campaign to get funding to paint the story of the two neighbourhoods on the bridge. Everybody got out to paint together. They didn’t have a permit yet from the city to do their work.

“The two leaders told us that while they were out painting one day a police officer drove onto the bridge and stopped. Everybody got really worried, really fast.

“The police officer got out the car and walked up to them. He had tears in his eyes and said, ‘thank you so much for doing this. This is so important’. And then everybody burst into tears.”

Erin says this is an important story about the way communities can come together to create good.

“Cleveland is a very law-abiding city. People there would never do the sorts of things that New Yorkers and Memphians would do.

“They really want to respect their city. Despite this, they decided to do something they knew could get them into trouble.”

This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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