With “Citizinvestors,” Philly Will Try to Crowdfund its Way to a Better Future

Will Mayor Nutter's Kickstarter-style website encourage civic participation, or narrow it?

What’s the difference between a citizen and a “Citizinvestor?” In Philadelphia, we’re about to find out.

Mayor Michael Nutter on Thursday announced that City Hall will be among the partners piloting the new Citizinvestor website, a Kickstarter-style effort that lets local governments “crowdfund” government projects with citizens willing to pony up a few bucks on top of their taxes. Instead of Kickstarter’s iPhone cases and Amanda Palmer albums, Philadelphia residents will be able to do things like donate money for an enclosed dog park in Fairmount.

It might be a great idea: Mayor Nutter says the pilot project might help grow “civic participation in city government.”

But there’s also a danger—that by emphasizing “citizinvestment” over plain old-fashioned citizenship, Philadelphia will end up further restricting civic participation to those folks who can dig deep into their wallets.

Then again: Maybe that’s happening to us already.

Philadelphia schools, you may have noticed, are starting to undergo radical change—a broken and busted school district has begun the process of breaking itself up into smaller “achievement networks” that favor charter schools over traditional public schools. The big guns behind that plan? The William Penn Foundation, which reportedly helped round up more than $2 million to pay for a consultant’s report that laid the groundwork for the restructuring.

That’s citizinvestment at work.

Over at City Hall proper, the reconstruction of Dilworth Plaza has taken place not under the Mayor’s direction, nor of City Council, but under the aegis of the Center City District, which obtained a $15 million grant—and a 30-year lease of the plaza—to fund the renovation, leading Council President Darrell Clarke to wonder if the city would still have control over public events on its own front porch.

That, too, is citizinvestment.

Heck, even our parks are subject to the treatment. Rittenhouse Square all but shuts down a few days a year so the city’s elite can gather to party, and to raise money for the park itself. Regular folks have to skip the park for a few days while preparations take place.

Friends, that’s also citizinvestment. What do all three examples have in common? They elbow the public aside, if only slightly, to establish private privileges over our city’s public services and public spaces.

Maybe that’s not entirely awful. Philadelphia schools are in notoriously poor shape and have been for decades; maybe citizinvestment is what finally turns them around. Dilworth Plaza was ugly, but it won’t be anymore; Rittenhouse Square is usually one of the city’s finest gathering places for rich and poor alike. You may have noticed that Philadelphia city government is sclerotic, that our services are often delivered imperfectly, at best. Who is going to complain if citizinvestment improves things a little bit for everybody?

Still, there’s that branded word: “Citizinvestor.” At its best, it conjures up a sense of responsibility and activism that is citizenship at its best. At its worst, it carries a whiff of the of the bad old days when only white, property-owning men owned the full privileges of citizenship: Unless you literally invested in your community, you were denied the right to help steer that community’s future. That’s not a model that would bode well for Philadelphia’s future.

Citizinvestment is clearly already happening in Philadelphia, however, and has been for a long time: Citizinvestor’s chief virtue is that it brings the process closer to the rest of us—folks who can leverage $5, $10, or $15 into helping the city grow more trees. Thanks to technology, maybe citizinvestment won’t belong just to millionaires anymore.

In that case, things will work out fine. But we shouldn’t forget that there are services and spaces all of us hold in common—that we get to use and enjoy, yes, but that all of us are responsible for supporting and perpetuating. Citizinvestor can be a success—but only if it augments, instead of replaces, citizenship itself.