A Beautiful Day in the Virtual Neighborhood

Tools to bring communities together.

by André Natta

All cities are made up of neighborhoods, each with their own unique character, successes, and challenges. Birmingham, AL is no different, with its 151 square miles divided into 99 well-defined sections (at least on a map), each part of one of the city’s 23 communities and nine council districts.  It’s the underpinning to a system of community participation that’s been both heralded as an example of the true potential of municipal civic engagement, and criticized as not serving the needs of a city undergoing significant changes.

One of the long time benefits of the neighborhood system is its ability to inform citizens about things taking place around the corner from their home or business. The age of being too “busy” to attend monthly meetings wasn’t seen as a problem at all — until the city’s decision to stop sending monthly flyers announcing meeting dates and items of interest. While some neighborhoods still see a reasonably large turnout for their meetings, some only see the diehards venturing to libraries and community centers.

Enter the power of the Internet.

There has been a lot of attention paid to the latest addition to the digital arsenal of community leaders, Nextdoor. It’s not the first product to attempt to tackle the issue of informing neighbors, though the need to verify your address in order to participate does make it well–liked by those wanting to keep neighborhood issues “in the family.” Many times it will also force those considering a move into a new part of town to pick up the phone and figure out who already living there they may have connections with.

Other tools and projects have been launched in the past, with varying degrees of success and adoption in larger cities (mostly driven by whether or not a resident in the neighborhood is aware of its existence). Home Elephant (homeelephant.com), a mobile-based product only available as an iPhone app, launched back in 2011. The limitations of this service are immediate—it depends on your having an iPhone. The site once seen as the gold standard in the arena, Nation of Neighbors (nationofneighbors.com), launched back in 2005 as a digital solution for Jefferson County, WV. It is similar in functionality to Nextdoor, though it’s not as flashy as the newest entrant.

While communities like Crestwood North have seen increasing success and others, like Norwood, begin to use it, it’s important to point out it’s not the only approach being undertaken here in Birmingham.

Several neighborhood organizations still rely on an email list. It’s something that lends itself to being seen with regularity as it’s a little more disruptive — you’ve got to see the headline as you attempt to tackle your inbox. It’s not necessarily out of mind since it’s not out of sight. I know I paid a great deal of attention to what happened in Central City when I knew I was getting an email reminder and I’d run into a neighborhood officer expecting me to know what was contained within.

Some neighborhoods, like those in Woodlawn and East Lake, have turned to establishing either a Facebook group or a fan page for the neighborhood. Using the popular platform means an additional method of publicizing events and removing the need to remember yet another password. It’s also a little easier to connect with those who live and die by the mobile connection nowadays. A group can be made private, but given Facebook’s penchant for adjusting its privacy settings and policies, it’s easier for folks to consider single purpose solutions like Nextdoor and Nation of Neighbors.

We haven’t even talked about other existing tools for other purposes like Meetup.

There is a continued desire for privacy in a world increasingly designed for that to be harder to accomplish. Perhaps as more neighborhoods continue to desire the need to take their concerns online and behind virtual closed doors, other issues will be looked at more vigorously, including the need to expand the broadband network in both the city and the state and the need to provide more options for residents to log in and become a bigger part of an increasingly hierarchical system of sharing information (perhaps by providing additional funding to libraries and community centers to allow for more computers and better connectivity). Will community coverage by local media truly be a reflection of what is going on in the neighborhood or only what’s been deemed appropriate and filtered?

You don’t necessarily need every citizen to attend every meeting anymore. There is a need for them to still be concerned about their neighborhood’s future. It’s somewhat humorous to realize the success of any of these platforms as the communications tool it’s intended to be is the need for neighbors to speak with each other offline — a new invasion of the front porch.

A pleasant surprise indeed.

One Response to “A Beautiful Day in the Virtual Neighborhood”

  1. Darrell O'Quinn says:

    Many thanks André! In order to meet Crestwood North residents where they are, we’ve taken the approach of using multiple platforms. We’re actively using Nextdoor, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo Groups, Google+, and a couple of others. We’re exploring other options as well, like One Call Now which would allow us to contact those residents without smart phones or Internet access. We’d still like to see the return of those monthly fliers, but until then we’re thankful for the many innovative options that are available.

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