Philadelphia Uses ‘Crowdfunding' to Complete Civic Projects

The City of Philadelphia is testing a new way to pay for projects when it lacks funds

City Hall is leveraging an innovative idea to fund community projects and gain citizen involvement. 

The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department's Youth Urban Agriculture Program has a new initiative kicking off this summer -- an intergenerational garden at the Rivera Recreation Center, located in the 3200 block of North 5th Street.

"I intend to plant daisies. It's good to see flowers instead of weeds. It makes the community bright," said Rita Rivera of the nearby Mann Older Adult Center.

The city is using 'crowdfunding' via Citizinvestor to make the vision for the Rivera Recreation Center a reality. Kickstarter is another crowdfunding portal that encourages online fundraising for creative projects. 

Last fall, the City of Philadelphia became the first U.S. city to use Citizinvestor, which is geared specifically to help municipalities acquire funding to complete their projects. 

This is how it works: Municipalities post a project with a funding goal. Citizens donate online. If the goal is met, the municipality receives the funds minus fees. It's an all or nothing proposal -- in order for the entity to receive the funds, the fundraising goal must be met.  

"Crowdfunding can solve people's problems." said Jeff Friedman, Manager of Civic Innovation and Participation. It's an opportunity to expand public projects that would not normally be funded by City Hall. "When we found out about it (Citizinvestor), it was something worth pursuing and experimenting with," he said.

The Rivera Recreation Center Community Garden campaign is hoping to raise $2,163 to add a 500 square foot fruit garden to its argicultural plan. The money will go toward fruit trees, berry bushes, groundcover and other miscellaneous gardening items. There are 30 days left in the online campaign and $1,010 left to raise. 

Citizinvestor is waiving its fee to the city for the Rivera project, but a 3-percent payment service fee will be deducted. If the funding goal is met, the money will be distributed to The Fund for Philadelphia (the fiscal sponsor) and they will distribute the resources to the Parks and Recreation Department.

Story K. Bellows of the Mayor's Office of New Mechanics described utilizing Citizinvestor as an opportunity to "look at how cities can leverage crowdfunding tools to gain support." 

The city's first Citizinvestor project, TreePhilly, did not meet its $13,000 fundraising goal last fall so the city did not receive the pledged donations. "We learned a lot, and fell short and can apply the lessons we learned," said Bellows.

Key takeaways from the TreePhilly Citizinvestor experience include: focus on projects that are less broad, more focused and applicable to a specific community so those citizens can take ownership of the project. Bellows spoke about these observations and whether crowdfunding can save local government budgets at the SXSW conference in Austin. 

Urban Agricultural Program Coordinator Elisa Ruse-Esposito welcomes the city collaboration and citizen support. She described the Rivera project as an "intergenerational garden" mixed with "urban farming." In addition to the garden, the program will offer educational activities that "teach kids how to grow food."

Seniors from a nearby senior center will be gardeners and mentor the children. "The seniors are a primary component to the garden's maintenance plan," said Ruse-Esposito.

The Citizinvestor campaign is set to have a direct community impact and beautify the neighborhood. 

"In my country (Puerto Rico) we have flowers year-round but here it is only in the summertime. They smell good and they give a better view of the center," said Rita Rivera. She is one of about two dozen seniors who have signed up to become mentors at the Rivera Recreation Center Community Garden. 

The forthcoming Franklin’s Paine Skatepark has also leveraged crowdfunding to support its final stage of construction. It will be the largest public skate plaza in North America. The total project cost is about $4.5 million, but there's still miscellaneous funding needed.

The skatepark has been in the works for 10 years. The location is in Fairmount Park along the Schuykill River banks, near Martin Luther King Drive and Ben Franklin Parkway.

The Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund is using Kickststarter to raise $10,000 to cover outstanding “soft costs” that have come up, such as construction and management costs that their funding sources didn’t cover.

Executive director Claire Laver said, “With eight days to go, we’ve surpassed our goal. We are certainly excited about that.” Their kickstarter campaign solidified the final project needs, and a ribbon cutting is anticipated this May.

"Long term, there is great potential in terms of figuring out how citizens can directly support the projects that they are interested in their government pursuing," said Bellows.

"We see a lot of opportunity for supporting and cultivating innovation inside the city in things that you might not want taxpayer dollars to flow directly to. It provides a little bit of flexbility-- when you have multiple sources of funding."

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