Live in one place long enough and you start to develop strong opinions on all the things in the area that could be improved--maybe there’s a vacant lot that would be perfect for a park, or a street that desperately needs bike lanes. Chances are, if you think that lot needs a park and that street needs a bike lane, other people do too. But how can you make your collective voice heard? Neighborland, a New Orleans-based startup that aims to be a social network for neighborhoods across the U.S., is a start.
The recently launched site, which is backed by The Obvious Corporation (an ideas incubator started by the cofounders of Twitter), grew out of cofounder Candy Chang’s projects in New Orleans and Fairbanks, Alaska. In New Orleans, the artist stuck nametag-like stickers saying "I WISH THIS WAS ___” on abandoned structures throughout the city. In Fairbanks, Chang launched a similar project, where an abandoned apartment building was draped in a sign saying "Looking for Love." Passersby were encouraged to use chalkboards at the building’s base to write their hopes and dreams for its future uses.
Neighborland takes the neighborhood revitalization theme a step further, acting kind of like a Digg or Reddit for neighborhood ideas. Go to the New Orleans page, and you’ll see a list of suggestions from users--things like "I want a Computer Science department at Tulane in New Orleans" and "I want a lot more recycle bins available/visible all over the city in New Orleans." Anyone who is signed in can comment or click the "Me Too" button to indicate that they would like the suggestion to be taken seriously. Users can sort through suggestions by what’s current, popular, or new.
When an idea gains enough traction, Neighborland tries to make sure that the appropriate local agencies see it. In one example, a Neighborland idea to bring the new downriver streetcar in New Orleans to Poland Ave. was so popular that Transport for NOLA and Neighborland teamed up ensure that the request was added to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority’s request for federal funding. After an online petition garnered over 2,200 signatures, Neighborland held an event with local residents and community leaders to bolster support even more.
In another instance, 61 people on the site expressed interest in having the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority open up its GPS data so developers could build smart apps. This caught the eye of local organization Transport for NOLA, which partnered with Neighborland to create a petition that racked up 300 signatures. An open data policy was already on the RTA’s to-do list, but it became a much bigger priority because of the petition. Now the agency has opened up its transit data.
Community organizations can also ask the Neighborhood community what amenities they would like to see. Broad Community Connections, a neighborhood organization in New Orleans, asked users last year what they would like to see on Broad St. The organization received dozens of responses, including "fresh artisan bread," a dance class and martial arts studio," "a dignified swimming hall," and "bike racks outside of businesses."
Neighborland was incubated in New Orleans--that’s why there are so many ideas for the city on the site--but it’s now open to a handful of other locations, including Boulder, Houston, and Minneapolis. It will open up even further in the future. It’s too early to tell whether Neighborland will be successful on a country-wide scale, but a blog post from the Obvious Corporation sums up the need for the service:
"We don’t live in a 1950s TV show. It’s unlikely in most neighborhoods that residents will walk over, knock on your door, introduce themselves, and ask how they can help. However, 'signing in’ to your neighborhood and connecting with those who live around you about shared issues--speed bumps, recycling, whatever--that is a more likely and familiar scenario nowadays. Neighborland has the potential to unite residents and profoundly upgrade our neighborhoods."