Category Archives: neighbors

Nextdoor and NYC team up to enhance neighboring

Flickr/kiki99

Flickr/kiki99

I’ve written in the past about efforts to use 21st century technological tools to enhance neighbors’ connections with each other, the sort that are far less common today than in the 1960s or 1970s.

Nextdoor, a leader in this space, has partnered with NYC Mayor  Bloomberg to provide Nextdoor services in 1800 existing NYC neighborhoods.  It’s a win-win partnership.  The city gets a platform that enables them to pinpoint messages that need to get out to certain neighborhoods (such as upcoming events, programs, news, emergency bulletins), and NYC through NYCGov will let New Yorkers know how they can better connect with their neighbors through the Nextdoor platform.  (These Nextdoor networks are secure so users have to verify they actually live in a neighborhood to join and users get to control what of this information is public and what is shared privately between neighbors.)

Nextdoor makes it far easier to share information with neighbors (on mobile phones or computers), whether it is about a community issue, or finding a good painter or babysitter, or setting up a block party, or providing other advice or recommendations.  Nextdoor is also an example of what Bob Putnam and I call “alloy” social capital that combines virtual and face-to-face elements.  We believe that alloy connections are stronger than either the purely virtual social connections in an online gaming community (for instance) and also stronger than purely face-to-face connections.  The platform of Nextdoor also makes it more likely that one will meet new neighbors when one follows up on a e-post by inviting a neighbor to coffee, or start waving to or talking with a neighbor who one previously passed silently.  And for neighborly relations that already exist, Nextdoor can help strengthen them by increasing the frequency with which one connects with neighbors.

See earlier post about Nextdoor here.

The Nextdoor-NYC announcement, builds on similar announcements with 120 city governments over the last 12 months including cities like San Jose, Denver,  Dallas or San Diego.  New York City is an iconic city of 8.3 million people and this agreement offers the potential to unlock a lot of social capital so we’ll watch this with bated breath and hope that many other cities will follow NYC’s lead.

It will be interesting down the road to plot out the rise of Nextdoor usage by neighborhood with its impact on social capital measures (e.g., trust of neighbor or borrowing/lending from neighbors) and on putative downstream measures (such as lower crime rate, from the higher level of e-”eyes on the street” to transmute Jane Jacobs‘ pearl of wisdom into the digital age.

See earlier Social Capital blog post on Nextdoor.

See Wired story about this collaboaration of Nextdoor and NYC.

Nextdoor: e-neighborhood networks

 

Sarah Leary, Nextdoor.com

I had an interesting conversation with Sarah Leary, co-founder of Nextdoor.

Sarah comes from having worked at epinions (with the other Nextdoor co-founder Nirav Tolia) and discovering how one could capture reputation and trustworthiness online (in terms of ratings) and how people thirsted to compete with one another to be helpful in their comments.

Nextdoor is now trying to localize social networks.  [A bit more at the bottom of this earlier blog post.]

Nextdoor’s approach is as follows:

1. Individual social entrepreneurs can apply to launch Nextdoor in a community.

2. The social entrepreneur fills out an application form and if he/she looks like they are serious about this and well integrated in the neighborhoods, they are invited to proceed.

3. The social entrepreneur self-defines their community (using tools that make it easy to incorporate parcels, census blocks, etc.).  Ideally a community is between 50 and 200 households.  And they are not allowed to choose geography that is already part of another active Nextdoor community.  And the social entrepreneur invites his/her friends to join.

4. The Nextdoor community is in a pilot period for 21 days, and if there are not 10 active users by then, the site goes dark and users are told that the site hasn’t achieved sufficient momentum.

4. Anyone joining can see a map of the “neighborhood” and see which houses have or have not already joined. Those on the site have the power to invite others in their neighborhood to join the site (by e-mail, postcard, etc.).  A lot of their growth comes from strong word-of-mouth.

They launched in October 2011 and are already in 2100 communities nationwide.  Surprisingly, they have found that in order for sites to be viable, it is less important that they get to some percentage penetration of the community but to get to a surprisingly small number of active users.

All users are verified (by phone, by postcard, by address from a credit card, or by neighbor confirmation) that they are in the relevant neighborhood.

As one would expect from social capital theory, they find that people do in general behave surprisingly civilly.  [This because participants are highly likely to encounter each other off-line, and those behaving dishonestly are likely to be ostracized or  sanctioned.]

Their original motivation for starting the site was to get individuals involved in civic issues, but they found that much of what people wanted to do was discuss crime, or get recommendations, or find local people to sell something.  But their anecdotal experience is that these exchanges help forge the social networks that can be activated when civic issues arise.  Moreover, they believe that these transactions help reinforce generalized trust of participants in their neighbors.

We’ll look forward to hearing about their lessons and what works well or doesn’t.  Obviously, it would be great if they and others succeed in building stronger neighborhood engagement for all the reasons noted in Bowling Alone: better health, lower crime rates, better performing schools and governments, and happier residents.

It remains to be seen what lessons they learn about how online social connections can be maximally used to spur and reinforce face-to-face connections as well.

Shrinking Detroit while retaining its social capital

Flickr photo by buckshot.jones

Detroit faces a painful decision.  Its population has crumbled over the last decade, shedding 25% of its residents (or 235,000 people).  What was once the fourth largest city in America in 1920 and which had nearly 2 million residents in 1950, now has only 713,777 residents.  As the NY Times observes, “Detroit is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.”

The challenge is that people, as one might expect, are not neatly leaving from one or two neighborhoods, instead leaving vacant lots scattered throughout a 139 square mile city.  This complicates government’s ability to police, educate, collect trash, etc. all with lower tax revenue.  (Vacancy rates are obviously highest in general in the downtown area and in the east side, areas generally inhabited by poorer and less educated residents.)

The Mayor is trying to figure out how to demolish 10,000 structures, given that there is a 20% vacancy rate in housing across the city.

The challenges are two-fold: 1) the city lacks any power of eminent domain to force these people to leave but the city plans to focus its investments on neighborhoods it considers more vibrant and healthy; and 2) the city doesn’t seem to focus on what the “social capital” consequences will be of all these people moving.  In fact, they seem to be measuring almost everything except for that, tracking “population densities, foreclosed homes, disease, parks, roads, water lines, sewer lines, bus routes, publicly owned lands, and on and on.”  The city may also cut back services to these less “viable” neighborhoods.

We should bear in mind the horrible lessons of slum clearing in the 1950s where “slum” neighborhoods like Boston’s West End were razed to build new housing.  Herbert Gans in his book Urban Villagers details the high social cost of this ill-conceived experiment as thousands of social ties and the vibrant life of this community was extinguished.  It seems like Detroit Mayor Dave Bing would be wise to hire some ethnographers or social networks students to map out people’s social networks and identify sociometric clusters of individuals that could be encouraged to move together; this would maximize the happiness and sense of engagement of those who moved and minimize the social costs from dislocated friendships.

Of course, even if Mayor Bing does this, one overarching question of the Detroit plan is whether poor residents will largely be asked to move to more affluent neighborhoods, and if so, how they will be able to afford this, and what the city will do to try to build more bridging social capital between the existing residents and the new in-movers.

See “The Odd Challenge for Detroit Planners” (NY Times, 4/5/11)

See maps of where demolitions are proposed: (NY Times graphic, 4/5/11)