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Akron, Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis are four cities set to benefit from a new $40 million civic investment initiative, Reimagining the Civic Commons, launched by some of the nation’s biggest philanthropic foundations. This comes after a smaller pilot program in Philadelphia last year. 

The JPB Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation will pool together $20 million, matched by $20 million from local sources, to invest in various public spaces—parks, libraries, municipal buildings, and even sidewalks. Many of these spaces currently face neglect, abuse, and brutal budget cuts. 

In a statement, Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen called for “re-thinking how to [better] use great civic spaces for today's diverse and inclusive communities.” Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson also noted the role of the “civic commons” in bridging gaps between the various sectors of society: “Our libraries, parks, community centers, and schoolyards once served rich and poor alike as neutral ground where common purpose among people was nurtured. By creating more places where people share experiences with people who are different from themselves, we can begin to bridge longstanding economic divisions and create new opportunities.” 

So this current initiative understands itself  through the wide lens of the inequality paradigm currently in vogue among the top foundations as a way to  improve overall quality of life in these cities. And inasmuch as these sort of efforts prove effective at directing resources and attention towards those shared spaces that define an urban landscape, they actually do hold out some plausible promise of addressing social inequality. This is because civil society is not about ensuring every citizen has the same experience (whether in education or sports or the arts), but that citizens from all sorts of backgrounds have a common forum in which to encounter one another qua citizens. 

And the program seems to work. Philadelphia, which received $11 million from the Knight and William Penn Foundations in a trial version of this initiative last year, went on to announce a staggering $300 million civic investment in parks, libraries and rec centers across the city.  

The University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum devotes a section of her 2013 book Political Emotions to praising the Windy City’s Millennium Park, which, according to Nussbaum, encourages spontaneous, bodily interactions between fellow citizens and thereby helps foster a civic spirit of inclusion and justice. She calls the space a “poem of diversity,” a perfect symbol of urban vitality. $40 million dollars is surely enough capital to help a new crop of cities craft their own poems. 

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