Moving America Forward

Finish This Sentence — and Change Your Town Forever

December 4, 2013
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Finish This Sentence — and Change Your Town Forever
A Neighborland installation on Broad Street in New Orleans. Courtesy of Neighborland
Tired of that eyesore on the corner? Bet your neighbors are too. A new online venture makes it easy to come together and fix things.

If you could change one thing about your neighborhood, what would it be? A farmer’s market in that abandoned lot on the corner? Speed bumps? A park bench?

Such wishes are becoming less and less idle, thanks to a growing New Orleans startup called Neighborland. The company built a web platform that functions as a community bulletin board, one that begins with a simple Mad Lib: I want _____ In ______. I want a bike lane, for example, on 6th Street in San Francisco.

Then, the magic happens. One by one, other community members, either people who actually live in that neighborhood or those who use and care about it, signify that they want that thing too, by clicking “me too.” It could stop there, with the same kind of “clicktivism” for which millennials are so often mocked. But then Neighborland steps in and catalyzes the idea, either with funding help, institutional know-how or by creating partnerships with the appropriate local organizations that can corral those latent desires and get things done.

The platform was the brainchild of co-founders Candy Chang and Dan Parham, and it began in a much more analog fashion in New Orleans in July 2011: Chang started putting up nametag-style stickers on abandoned structures around the city that read “I WISH THIS WAS ____.” Twenty thousand of them were then photographed and uploaded to Flickr.  But as Chang and Parham soon realized, a virtual version—a website—would be much more useful than stickers on bricks and mortar. This would be a place online where people with common interests could unite, discuss, organize and update, all from the comfort of their keyboards. Neighborland was born.

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At first, the site relied completely on funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Then, like-minded entrepreneurs and venture capitalist types jumped on board, eventually including heavy hitters such as The Obvious Corporation, the investment vehicle of Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Now, neighbors are being mobilized in other cities in America, and Neighborland’s focus is on sustaining itself without outside help, by offering its platform and its expertise to organizations with ample ideas and energy but which might feel limited by one-size-fits-all platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. In San Francisco, for example, Neighborland teamed up with the Greenbelt Alliance to help that organization muster support for better urban planning. Now, neighbors are being mobilized in other cities in America: in Detroit, for example, to preserve and reuse historic buildings, create public transportation and bike lands and end gun violence.

“We realized it’s very expensive and difficult for organizers to build awesome technology,” Parham says. “They can’t afford to build world-class, consumer-grade software. That’s what we should do.”

The point of Neighborland’s “campaigns,” then, is to make community involvement as effortless as possible, knowing people lead hectic and fragmented lives. Everyone in a neighborhood might want the same thing, but who steps up and hosts a meeting? Who follows through?

“Neighborhoods are typically very weak networks,” Parham says. “Our question was, ‘How do we make them strong?’ ”

More ideas flop than flourish, Parham isn’t afraid to admit. That’s sort of the point, in a way: to encourage so many that a million are tossed around, and the best hundred actually float to the surface. “You have to create space for people to try and fail. There are more bad ideas on Neighborland than good, and that’s OK,” Parham says. This philosophy is behind the deliberate decision not to involve money in the platform—yet. The founders didn’t want participants to feel like they had to donate cash to help. It’s also why you don’t have to actually live in the neighborhood to step up; those who work or regularly play somewhere are also welcome to take part.

In all, more than 50 different projects have been completed in the last two years. The first— launching a street market in the parking lot of an abandoned Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in the New Orleans’ neighborhood of St. Claude in July 2011—was a huge success: 500 people showed up.

“No quantitative data would ever tell you that that many people would show up,” Parham says. “But culture is the thin edge. It was cool, it was different.”

The market continues to this day, in a better location, as Neighborland expands its focus. An idea for a new downriver streetcar in New Orleans drew such interest that the company teamed up with the nonprofit Transport for NOLA and lobbied the local transit authority to ask for federal funding for the project. In San Francisco, collaborators are working on a project to make safer a dangerous stretch of 6th Street, where bicyclists and pedestrians are regularly struck by cars.

What’s next? That’s up to you, neighbor.

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