In the City with Neighborland

Thanks to Takepart and IBM Smarter Cities for their profile on co-founder Dan Parham and the Market Street Prototyping Festival.

“You’ve strolled through that open plaza with a fountain and a few pigeons countless times—business suits during the day, a few wayward loiterers at night. Then there’s the boarded-up business around the way. That vacant lot over there. A crowded bus stop. A blocked bike lane. Those damn potholes…

While they may be the stomping grounds you love in your city, you also have ideas for improving things. That’s why Neighborland co-founders Dan Parham and Candy Chang conducted a simple social experiment in New Orleans, where they set up stickers and markers for people to share their thoughts for improving their community. They saw the reaction: what was lacking was unified action. Soon thereafter, Neighborland was born.

Parham helped create the Neighborland website to give people the opportunity to voice their dreams and concerns and improve their respective communities. The site gives information, support, and resources needed to follow through—collectively. For example, a user can share they want more food trucks in their neighborhood, then they would work with other community members to come up with initiatives. Neighborland provides another powerful outlet for connecting with residents and making change in real time.”

Read the full article on Takepart

Redesigning UN Plaza

San Francisco Beautiful in UN Plaza

This spring, SF Beautiful was awarded a grant from the City of San Francisco to make United Nations Plaza a healthier, more vibrant public space. SF Beautiful led a coalition of local organizations who shared their goals including: The City of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), Tenderloin Economic Development Project (TEDP), University of California at Hastings, Art Institute of California, Federal Department of Homeland Security, and the SFPD. They reached out to Tenderloin and Mid-Market residents for their ideas, insights, and resources, and are now programming the plaza with ideas suggested by residents. This initiative is grounded in the philosophy that the people who live, work, and play in UN Plaza know what it needs to thrive.

Opportunity

UN Plaza is a 2.5 acre “park” surrounding the Civic Center BART/MUNI station in the center of the city. The brick and concrete plaza is the only open space accessible for many neighbors in the Tenderloin. It’s also one of San Francisco’s most popular public spaces, with over 50,000 neighbors reflecting, exercising, meeting friends, and passing through the plaza on any given day. The opportunity is that it’s one of San Francisco’s most underperforming public spaces.

The Heart of the City Farmers Market has brought much needed healthy food and economic vibrancy to the Tenderloin and Central Market neighborhoods. Now, SF Beautiful is engaging with locals to implement a series of ideas to activate the plaza with music, arts, recreation, and activities for children and families.

In this program, neighbors’ ideas could be temporary improvements (removed daily), one­ time events, or recurring events. The budget for implementation, not including labor, was set at $2,500 ­- $5,000 for each idea. Impact is determined by the estimated number of people that will actively engage with the idea, sense of safety created by the intervention, and extensibility of the idea.

Approach

In March, the UN Plaza Coalition hosted a public meeting at UC Hastings with over 200 neighbors in attendance. Neighbors’ ideas and insights were collected from written input, SMS, Twitter, and Neighborland. All of this input was aggregated on the #UNPlaza Project page. It was the first time that an organization used Neighborland as a live ideation and voting tool in a public meeting.

TEDP Executive Director Anh Nguyen live tweeted all of the ideas that were submitted by Tenderloin neighbors. It was a simple, but powerful way to extend the public input in the meeting to a wider audience. Often ideas presented in the oral statements are not captured in the design process, but Anh’s innovative use of Twitter helped amplify neighbors’ voices. Two of the resident’s ideas that were suggested at the pubic meeting, and live tweeted by Anh, became finalists in the program.

Offline + Online

For the next 6 weeks, neighbors voted on all of the ideas publicly on the#UNPlaza Project. A panel that included staff from various city agencies lead by OEWD evaluated all of the ideas on the basis of impact, feasibility, and scope. On June 4th, SF Beautiful then took the four finalist ideas and had neighbors vote on them in UN Plaza during a beautiful, sunny, summer day. Over 850 neighbors cast their votes and chose the winners.

SF Beautiful in UN Plaza

Here’s how SF Beautiful describes the first event, a pop-up music concert:

San Francisco is home to a lot of great musicians. Performance stages will be set up for various genres of music performances on a weekly basis. Sipping a summer drink, you can relax on the grass with your friends while enjoying live music!

Good for:
Everyone, especially music lovers

How does this event make UN Plaza a better place?
Positive activity
Supporting local artists
Welcomes everyone
Enjoyable and relaxing experience
A space makeover with music

Time:
Weekend Mid Day- Evening

Making it Happen

SF Beautiful is bringing these winning ideas to life this summer in events series called “Pause, Play, Connect.” It’s a community-generated programming and placemaking special event series sponsored by Invest in Neighborhoods and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, curated by MJM Management Group. It is a first-of-its kind event series on Mid Market that will offer a huge variety of events, easy access to BART, and the best performers and organizers in Bay Area dance, live music, children’s programming, indie film, cultural cuisine, and circus arts. Pause, Play Connect at UN Plaza has something for everyone. Join us!

How to engage the public

SF Beautiful installation in UN Plaza

As an Organizer, your first task is to define your Project. Residents will need to understand the constraints of your Project: what resources you have to implement ideas, what’s the timeframe for your Project, and how can they collaborate with you to help make the great, feasible ideas happen? 

Before your event, sign up to Neighborland with your organizations’s admin-friendly email, and send us your profile URL. We will set you up as an Organizer on Neighborland which will give you access to all of our input and moderation tools. Describe your Project goals, timeline, and outcome in detail in the “description” field of your question. If you are interested in SMS and/or Twitter input, let us know

Swim with the Current

Now you’re ready for the fun part–engaging with residents in public space or at your event. First, choose a great site to engage with residents. For most place-based Projects, you will engage with residents in public space or at community events. For events in public space, we can not overstate the importance of foot traffic. Don’t expect people to come to you. You’ll get much better engagement from a bustling sidewalk, park, city plaza, or farmers market. One of the easiest ways to do this is to partner with existing cultural or civic events that residents love like block parties, arts festivals, and placemaking events.

Greenbelt in Mountain View

Sparking Conversation

There are three simple ways to collect input in public space with our tools – stickers, posters, or whiteboards. Our stickers work on any surface like glass, plastic, concrete, or wood. They are non-destructive in that they peel off any surface without leaving residue or damaging it. You can order the original “I Wish This Was” stickers, “I want ____ in my neighborhood” stickers, or custom printed stickers on our Handbook. Often organizations will print key information on the backs of the stickers, like their campaign URL and SMS/Twitter input instructions. Stickers are the most lightweight and mobile of all of the tactics. 

Organizers can print their own posters or stickers using our DIY design toolkit. Remember to keep stickers within reach for all residents. For example, stickers should not be placed higher than 30” from the street level for residents in wheelchairs and children. 

100 Custom Stickers

If you don’t have a wall or surface to set up a grid of stickers or printed poster, you can create a surface. Mobile whiteboards work well in plazas, markets, block parties, and street fairs. We recommend that you work with a local sign fabricator to create a mobile, re-usable whiteboard. We can send you a 3D design file with suggested fabrication materials. For a design services and materials fee, we can have a mobile whiteboard fabricated and shipped to you.

Start by Listening

So you’ve figured out where, when, and how you’re going to spark a conversation in public space. It’s time to make it happen! Bring 5-10 markers (non-permanent if you’re using a whiteboard, sharpies if you’re using stickers on a wall) and a few folks to help facilitate the engagement. Your team is ready to help residents share their ideas. Here are some tips on better brainstorming from the team at IDEO: encourage residents to think outside of the box, defer your judgement, and build on ideas. Have fun! Narrowing down ideas to those that are feasible and actionable comes a little later in the process. 

If you are passing out stickers as a takeaway, encourage participants to write their ideas on a sticker and paste on their clothes. Don’t worry, the stickers won’t damage even delicate fabrics. It’s ideal to have one or more facilitators by the stickers or board, and one person photographing the input. Take as many good pictures of people wearing or holding stickers as possible.

New Museum Ideas City street festival.

Most residents will take a look at the ideas on the sticker walls or boards for a few minutes. Ask them what they think, and encourage them to checkmark ideas they agree with. Some residents will share their own ideas. Often, people will have a discussion about an idea posted with others engaging with your installation. They will share information, news, and resources with each other. That’s what Neighborland is – a way to empower residents to share ideas, insights, and resources around a place-based question. And make sure to thank residents for their participation.

If participants become interested in your Project, encourage them to share their idea with their smartphone. Neighborland works great on all mobile devices. If a resident doesn’t have a smartphone, they can text their idea, or let them know that ideas from the stickers or whiteboard will be uploaded to the Project page. Residents can share their email with you so that you can keep them updated on your Project. Keep a simple clipboard with name, email, and idea fields handy. Encouraging people to sign up on their smartphone, or noting their email, will help you connect with participants during the entire length of your Project.

Neighborland at Philly Magic Garden

Some people will simply check out the discussion on the stickers or boards, and keep moving.  Having a stack of stickers to hand out is a great way to engage these folks. It’s important that you share the link to your Project online on the stickers. It’s easy for a busy resident to slip a sticker in their pocket or handbag, and check out your Project at a time convenient for them.

Meaningful Data

At the end of the event, you can use our simple “Idea Uploader” tools that enable you to upload a spreadsheet of ideas, votes (“me toos”), and participant emails to your Project page. Once you have all of the ideas uploaded, we have clustering and de-duplication capabilities to help you generate a meaningful set of data. You can select ones that are feasible, impactful, and actionable based on your Project’s goals, timeframe, and intended outcomes. These ideas will be highlighted on your Project page, and you can notify your participants as your Project evolves.

San Francisco Beautiful in UN Plaza

Human-Centered Urban Design

You’ve engaged the public and captured their desires for their community. You’ve collected their most popular, feasible, and impactful ideas and facilitated a constructive dialogue both online, and more importantly, in person. Now you can encourage your participants to help you make their great ideas happen.

Some organizations we’ve worked with, like San Francisco Beautiful, have taken selected ideas back into public space and had residents vote on these ideas. At the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, SF Beautiful had over 850 people vote on programming ideas for one of San Francisco’s most popular public plazas. Other organizations take the next step of prototyping the community’s ideas like the Safer 6th Street Coalition’s traffic calming project with the SFMTA in SF. Some organizations, like the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, have used Neighborland as a petitioning and network-building tool in their successful campaign to change the mobile vending laws in New Orleans. To see other outcomes of our partners’ work, visit Neighborland.

We highly recommend studying the work of tactical urbanists across the U.S. who are accelerating real change in their communities. We call this approach of ideation, co-creation, and experimentation “human centered urban design.”

Northwest Quality of Life

Note that Neighborland is an extension of traditional advocacy forums like community meetings. If there have been great ideas collected in past forums or planning initiatives, you should include them as “seeds” as a way to inspire dialogue.

Contact us if you have any questions or are interested in learning more.

2013 Year in Review

As we look forward to 2014, we wanted to take a few minutes to thank all of our neighbors and partners for a remarkable 2013. For the past year, we’ve been collaborating with advocacy organizations, community groups, universities, planners, and city agencies across the U.S. They have been helping us design new mapping, messaging, moderation, and analytics tools to improve the way they collaborate with residents. On that note, here’s a list of our favorite projects from 2013:

San Francisco State University

San Francisco State University President Leslie Wong invited students, faculty, staff, and community to participate in the strategic planning of the University by asking “What would make San Francisco State a better place?” Thousands of students, faculty, staff, and alumni are collaborating on the project on public whiteboards, SMS, and Twitter to make the planning effort as inclusive as possible.

Greenbelt Alliance engaging residents at the weekend farmers market, Mountain View, CA

Greenbelt Alliance engaged Mountain View residents in a dialogue about the sustainable development of Silicon Valley. Thousands of residents have participated either in person at the weekend farmers market or online. Key issues so far include housing density, complete streets, and vibrancy downtown.

N Judah Beautification Project leaders engaging with residents on the street in the Outer Sunset, San FranciscoN Judah Beautification Project leaders engaging with residents on the street in the Outer Sunset, San Francisco

The N Judah Turnaround Project, led by the Neighborhood Empowerment Network, asked Sunset residents, ‘How can we beautify the N-Judah Turnaround?’ They paired their survey with interactive signs in public space and discovered popular ideas, including a farmers market, better waste management, and artist murals. The project was recognized by City of San Francisco Supervisor Carmen Chu who awarded it a $15k grant for implementation.

League of Awesome Possibilities’s public installation in Ravenswood, Chicago

The League of Awesome Possibilities engaged residents with a series of events and workshops to plan the future development of Ravenswood, Chicago.

#Safer6th Street intervention between Market and Stevenson, Mid-Market, SF (Photo: Sergio Ruiz)

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA), District Supervisor Jane Kim, SPUR, Twitter, and Urban Spaceship prototyped a traffic calming solution and collected community input on one of San Francisco’s most dangerous streets.

Bike Easy rally on Decatur Street, New Orleans

Bike Easy successfully rallied for complete streets on Decatur Street, a major biking thoroughfare, and prototyped shared bikes during the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

New Museum Ideas City street festival.

Neighborland participated in the New Museum’s Ideas City street festival on the Lower East Side in New York City. Over 65,000 people came out to explore the theme Untapped Capital and re-imagine ways to use our community resources.

Food Truck Rally, Ashé Cultural Center, Central City, New Orleans

After a year-long campaign by the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, the New Orleans City Council passed legislation that adds more licenses for mobile vendors, expands locations, and allows for longer operating hours. Given the success of this project, we are developing a new framework for measuring both the economic and social impact of civic engagement.

wiltz

Corporate Realty solicited community ideas for the abandoned Wiltz Gym in Bywater, New Orleans. As part of their outreach, the realtor used Neighborland to ask residents what they wanted in the Wiltz Gym and initiated discussion on the future of the building, which is currently being renovated.

Project Homeless Connect volunteers at Bill Graham Civic Center for PHC50

Project Homeless Connect engaged clients and volunteers in a dialogue about how to help people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.

Mark Roth describing a mobile tool lending library at Freespace.

Freespace prototyped a new type of community center in Mid Market, San Francisco, as part of National Civic Hacking Day. They were recognized by the White House as ‘Champion of Change’ and continue their work in 2014 with a grant with the City of San Francisco.

Imagine Atlanta at Root City Market, Photo by KT Marie

Imagine Atlanta engaged residents at Root City Market in Atlanta (Photo by KT Marie).

Street seats mapping party in New York City

Street Plans mapped public street seats in New York City.

Popuphood at Art Murmur in Koreatown, Oakland

Working with the City of Oakland, Popuphood engaged locals around the re-development of the Koreatown-Northgate neighborhood.

A few more …

Folks for Polk held a series of resident workshops to advocate for pedestrian- and bike-friendly street designs as part of the SFMTA’s plan to redesign Polk Street in Nob Hill, San Francisco.

The City of Lowell, Massachusetts’s Office of Economic Development engaged residents with a public installation.

R&M Realty surveyed residents about possible anchor tenants in a commercial property in Edgewater, Chicago.

Defend the Daquiri educated residents around proposed changes to open container laws in New Orleans.

Neighborland teamed up with Square to clean up the streets in Mid Market, San Francisco.

The City of Portland, Maine’s Department of Planning surveyed residents about their vision for Congress Square.

Mission Mercato won a $2k grant from the Mission Repair Fund in Mission Dolores, San Francisco.

Walkable Springfield surveyed residents about how to make Springfield, Missouri more pedestrian friendly.

Chacha Sikes prototyped Fruit Fences as part of the UP Prototyping Festival in Mid Market, San Francisco.

Urban Spaceship activated public space in Manhattan, New York.

UX for Good designed tipping solutions for live musicians in New Orleans.

Neighborland presented at the University of California at Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture + Environmental Planning symposium, Adaptive Metropolis, and the Smart Cities World Congress in Barcelona.

Collaborate with us

Our mission is to help all residents shape the development of their neighborhoods. We only work with organizations who have clearly demonstrated their commitment to creating healthy, vibrant, and sustainable communities through their past work. Contact us if you’re interested in partnering with Neighborland.

Thank you

Again, a sincere thank you to all of the residents, organizations, and cities who collaborated to make great ideas happen in 2013.

Open Source Tools

Open Source Tools from Neighborland

We have open sourced five new ruby projects. These libraries are general-purpose web tools usable by anyone. The projects are all MIT licensed, so you can use the code with no restrictions. Look for more gems as we continue to extract small components from Neighborland.

If you are not a ruby developer, we hope that they still may be instructive.

cache_rocket

CacheRocket improves Rails server-side HTML caching with a simple technique that lets you cache more content. By caching more generic fragments of HTML server-side and injecting dynamic content, you can improve your hit rate while also reducing the overall size of your cache.

sluggi

Sluggi provides basic slugs, slug history, and the ability to define multiple slug candidates so that you have nice-looking URLs. It’s a simpler version of the popular friendly_id gem and it does more than the new Rails 4 to_param method.

scopy

Scopy provides common ActiveRecord utility scopes as ActiveSupport model concerns. Scopy provides scope methods for id, name, and created_at fields.

mobu

Mobu does server-side User Agent detection to categorize requests as mobile, tablet, or neither. It modifies your Rails view paths based on the request type*. It does not require custom MIME types or separate subdomains, so no more m.example.com URLs.

*Rails 4.1 introduces ActionPack Variants, which we will support soon.

resque_solo

This resque plugin allows you to enforce unique jobs. It is a rewrite ofresque-loner that works with the latest version of resque.

The Neighborland Mission

Bike Easy rally on Decatur Street, New Orleans

Our mission is to empower people to make their neighborhoods better. We started with a simple question, “How can we help people improve their neighborhoods?” We built tools for people educate one another about the most important issues in their neighborhoods, and make ideas happen. Now we are focused on building Projects, a set of tools for organizations to collaborate with their supporters.

Solutions to our communities’ most important issues can be complex, and often organizations need residents to engage in a series of actions over time to make ideas a reality. Some issues require money or volunteers, others need petitions, or a visible show of community support. The structure for dialogue on Neighborland helps residents, organizations, and municipalities track campaigns and nudge them towards resolution.

As we have evolved from an experiment to a social enterprise, we have developed these core values:

Action matters

We are experiential learners – we learn by doing. Small, incremental actions are an important way for residents to express their desires for their neighborhoods. Tactical interventions are not a replacement for traditional advocacy planning. Rather, they can inform the strategy of larger urban planning initiatives that require substantial amounts of time from experts and municipal funding. Not all prototypes succeed. If we want to innovate in our cities, we should embrace civic hacking as part of the urban design process.

Foster collaboration

We believe in open and transparent collaboration. Residents, community leaders, and municipal governments each have valuable perspectives on the development of our neighborhoods. Public dialogue about ideas big and small should be accessible, ongoing, and inclusive. Neighborland complements traditional advocacy forums like neighborhood meetings and city council hearings, adding voices and energy to ongoing debates and campaigns. Connecting residents with organizations who are already working on solving a problem is key. There is no us or them.In the wise words of Theodore Roosevelt, “We are the government.”

Social enterprise

We exist to make a visible, positive impact on the people, environment, and economic conditions of the communities where we work. Because accessibility and equity are core values of ours, Neighborland will always be free to use for residents. We have been working on several paths to sustainability as an organization. Whatever path we take, we won’t break with our core values.

Our purpose is to help communities become, in Douglas Farr’s words from Sustainable Urbanism, more “connected, compact, and complete.” By fostering the capacity for likeminded residents and community leaders to take action on their most important problems, we will help them build healthy, vibrant, and resilient cities.

Contact us if you’re interested in partnering with Neighborland in your city.

New Orleans Food Truck Coalition helps change mobile vending laws.

Rachel Billow, President New Orleans Food Truck Coalition

Idea
We want food trucks in New Orleans.

Action
On July 25th, after a year-long Campaign by the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, the New Orleans City Council passed legislation that adds more licenses for mobile vendors, expands locations, and allows for longer operating hours.

The Story
“I want food trucks” attracted 50 me too’s faster than any idea ever posted on Neighborland. Like many of the most successful ideas on the site, it was a known issue that several organizations were working to solve. Support quickly evolved into a discussion around the root causes of the problem. Antiquated regulations from the 1950s were suffocating the growth of the mobile food industry.

We helped organize a simple meeting of mobile vendors to discuss how the laws could be changed. This small group formed a coalition that established the common goal of achieving legal reform. Rachel Billow, owner of food truck La Cocinta, was chosen to lead the group. With the help of legal counsel Andrew Legrand, the group formed a 501(c)6 Trade Association called the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition. We supported a few of the NOFTC’s early events with our time, including a $500 community grant through the GOOD Ideas for New Orleans workshop.

The strategy of the NOFTC was to: advocate for reform of existing ordinances governing the operations and permitting of vendors in New Orleans; increase awareness among the public about the growing food truck industry in New Orleans; educate stakeholders and community members about the benefits of food trucks and dispel myths; and to work creatively to help enforcement of overhauled laws, leveraging both operators and the public. The coalition worked closely with The Institute for Justice, a D.C.-based public interest law firm that has advocated for mobile vendors in many U.S. cities.

The NOFTC organized events like the Food Truck Roundup as well asthe first rally at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in Central City. “Over 500 people came to hear about the movement and eat from the trucks. This event got members of the community excited about food trucks and eager to get involved,” Billow said. As more residents joined the Campaign, Neighborland provided a page to keep the conversation going and update supporters with eventsresources, and petitions. As the Campaign grew in popularity, Neighborland couldn’t provide all of the capabilities that the NOFTC needed. Those unmet needs have shaped where we are headed with our Campaigns tool.

Food Truck Rally at Ashé Cultural Arts Center in Central City

After the NOFTC presented the issue formally to City Council President Stacy Head, she sponsored the first piece of reform legislation in February of 2013. The NOFTC invited supporters to New Orleans City Hall to demonstrate their support in person. Although the initial measure didn’t pass, presenting the request formally was a pivotal step in taking the issue public. “This is right around the time when the media attention really started focusing on the case,” Billow said.

Food truck operators making it happen at City Hall

For next several months, Councilwoman Head worked with the NOFTC, city leaders, and opponents of the original proposal to draft an acceptable compromise. On July 24, 2013, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-0 to approve an ordinance backed by Mayor Landrieu to authorize more trucks, expand the area where food can be sold and hours for people operating the businesses. With respect to the final legislation, Billow says, “The laws should continue to evolve as the food truck scene develops … but for now, this is a substantial step toward reform.”

Return on Engagement
How should an organization measure a “return on investment” that accounts for their time, social and intellectual capital, and money spent on a campaign? For example, how would the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition quantify the the thousands of hours spent collectively by their volunteers over their 18 month campaign? If the startup cost of a new food truck is $50-200k, could the gross economic impact of 100 additional permits be five to twenty million dollars over the next 3 to 5 years? At $25,000 per truck, fees paid to the City of New Orleans could be as much as $2.5 million dollars. $10m to $15m in net economic impact seems like a successful result of the NOFTC’s campaign.

Perhaps more importantly, how should we measure the social impact of new mobile vendors providing food services in neighborhoods with limited options for residents? And how should a city like New Orleans measure the capacity of a passionate, committed group of engaged residents to organize and change laws for the better? As we work more closely with organizations in 2014, we will continue to share our thoughts on a new framework for measuring both the economic and social impact of civic engagement.

Morgan Fitzgibbons, co-founder [freespace] and The Wigg Party

Morgan Fitzgibbons, Freespace

An interview with 
Morgan Fitzgibbons, co-founder of [freespace] and The Wigg Party

What inspired the founders of [freespace] to start the project? 

The immediate inspiration for [freespace] was the National Day of Civic Hacking produced by the White House and NASA. They wanted to have a national hack-a-thon resulting in various apps and creative uses of datasets. Being veterans of hack-a-thons, we knew that 48 hours is typically not enough time to move from birth of an idea to actual implementation, so we decided to hack hack-day and create a physical space that would foster projects over an entire month.

Our knowledge of all the amazing things already happening in our community was a big part of our faith in embarking on this project – we knew that creating a locus point for everyone to concentrate their creative energy for a month or two couldn’t help but produce a heaping plate of awesome.

We also were more generally inspired by a similar project called 100 Days of Spring that took place two years ago – our friends got a building for super cheap and called on the community to fill it up with creativity and play. We were also, of course, inspired by the Diggers, a group of San Franciscans in the Haight-Ashbury heyday who really explored the power of free in “blowing minds” and shifting people’s “frame of reference” through free food, a free store, free medical clinic, etc.

 

What outcome were you trying to achieve with [freespace]? 

There were a number of different layers of intention for the project – we wanted to cultivate community, establish the value of creative reuse of underutilized resources, be a sort of incubator for civic innovation projects, have fun, help evolve and popularize the idea of civic hacking, and grow as individuals through the project. But ultimately our big goal was to establish the idea that, in the face of the planetary crises like climate change and financial collapse coupled with an exploding urban population around the globe, it is the responsibility of literally everyone to help move our cities and our communities forward. If you think voting once a year is the extent of your civic responsibility you are incredibly naive. For some people, contributing means developing an app; for others, it’s hosting a community art event; still others will find their passion in food. Whatever your medium, it’s important that you take seriously both your responsibility and your power to make your community a better place. It’s the only way we’ll make it through the coming challenges.

One thing we learned is that immersing yourself in a space where literally everyone is, as a rule, productively contributing is incredibly inspiring. We lost count of the number of people who quit their meaningless jobs to catch the wave we were riding. It would have been nice to capture all of those stories, as a way of spreading the contagion to folks who weren’t able to come to the space.

 

What was your favorite happening from the two months that [freespace] was open?

It all felt like one large happening – days bled into one another and it’s still tough to separate it all even weeks later. Even though I tended to be the guy trumpeting the ultimate meaning of it all, I found myself drawn towards the more whimsical events like cardboard battles and the impromptu charade and improv sessions we had. However, the period I’ll relish the most is really the first week to 10 days – everything was so fresh and exciting (and exhausting). We were all pulling 14-16 hour days and really getting to know each other and this crazy experiment we were undertaking. Every day brought incredible transformation for both the space and ourselves and it was a serious rush. Three weeks in things had calmed down and you were almost bored with the pace even though it was all still really dynamic. But those first 10 days… one of our team members remarked that it was like falling in love – you couldn’t eat or sleep if you wanted to.

 

What was the connection to Burning Man? 

Burning Man was obviously a big inspiration for a lot of folks on the team. In a lot of ways we were trying to take the experience of the Burn and bring it into the default world – create a space of limitless possibility, step outside the pervasive commodification of our culture, help people awaken to the reality that everything is essentially a product of small decisions and actions taken by individual people and yes that means you. When coming up with our core principles we definitely kept the Burning Man principles in mind, although we weren’t trying to be a copy of Burning Man.
Having the blessing of the Burning Man organization was one of our first big revelations that we were onto something important. They basically don’t lend their name to anything for understandable reasons, but they really understood early on that we were fulfilling the stated goal of their Burning Man Project which is essentially to spread Burning Man culture in urban centers and around the world. And the fact that so many people in the Bay Area have had the Burning Man experience really helped people “get” what we were trying to do. I don’t have any way of knowing this, but we benefitted hugely from people spreading news about our project through word of mouth and sharing on social media, and I’d be willing to bet most of the biggest proselytizers were experienced Burners.

 

In many ways, [freespace] is prototyping a new type of community center. Can you explain why?

The typical community center model is a holdover from the 20th century – it’s all about quality of life issues, more concerned with marginally improving the status quo than being a place of real dynamism. I know the term “disruption” is becoming cliche in our tech-saturated city, but that’s kind of what we bring to the table. [freespace] does provide some of the classic community center elements – a space to do art, a place homeless people can drop in to and sit down for a bit, a free meal on occasion – but our secret sauce is really the challenge that we throw down: what idea, big or small, do you have kicking around in your head and what are you doing to bring that to reality? It’s less a place to help fill in the gaps in a particular community (although we do some of that) and more a place to help take a community or city to the level it needs to be in 5-10 years. With the challenges coming to our planet and our cities, it’s pretty clear we need more spaces like this to help get on top of problems that weren’t even anticipated 30 years ago.

 

civichackingposer

How would you define civic hacking? 

Civic hacking, to me, is really about activating the latent power of every day citizens in shaping cities and communities, and often that activation comes in the form of intensely focused work sessions over a brief period of time. We’ve historically had this idea that the way to create civic change is to elect some capable people to pass laws to solve problems. On the national level this formula is tragically broken and even on the local level the government moves way too slowly. The bureaucracy integral to governmental institutions makes it effectively impossible for change to happen at an adequate pace. Add in the fact that most government workers maintain their employment based on how strictly they fit inside the decades long established box and it’s an almost hopeless situation. At the same time, especially in a place like San Francisco, the citizens of the city derive their very livelihood from creating new forms, whether it’s a new business, a new technological tool, or a new service. Governments need to develop ways to harness the immense power of the citizenry, whether it’s tech based or not, and, in truth, governments need to take a step back and evaluate whether their systems are dynamic enough to keep pace with the coming changes. As of right now, governmental institutions are woefully unprepared for what is coming.

 

Congratulations on being named one of the White House’s Champions of Change. What did you learn from the NDoCH leaders?

We got to meet with a bunch of great people, from Leader Pelosi’s Chief of Staff to UNICEF to NASA to the head of DC Planning to local DC folks interested in starting their own [freespace] – all of which will hopefully pay dividends going forward. However, one of the biggest things we learned is that the vast majority of people who were at the White House for the National Day of Civic Hacking awards were too enamored with the tech elements of civic innovation. We joked that we should play a drinking game where you had to take a sip every time somebody said the word “data.” In the Bay Area, we’ve kind of already gone through that infatuation with the power of technological tools and realized that it’s not the solution for everything. We basically tried to convey to the leaders of cities around the country “Your primary challenge is to get every single one of your citizens to feel it is their responsibility to become an active part of making your city better, and the vast majority of those people really don’t care about datasets.”

 

You’ve been critical of programs like the Bay Area Bike Share pilot because of its timeline and overall cost. How does your public criticism impact the work you do when you’re interacting with public officials?

When I’m not at [freespace] I run the Wigg Party, a community organization that works to make the neighborhood around the bike route the Wiggle more sustainable and more resilient. A big part of our work is in bicycle advocacy, and we kind of play the bad cop to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition‘s good cop – the SFBC sits at the table and plays nice, and we get to stand outside and tell the politicians the truth – that the bike projects aren’t ambitious enough and they are taking way too long. The Bike Share program is a great example: it was delayed for years and now that it’s finally launching we’re only getting 350 bikes in San Francisco. This is embarrassing. CitiBike launched in NYC with 6,000 bikes. Part of the reason we only get 350 bikes is because a bunch of the money is being spent on the salaries of people who are doing a really poor job. This isn’t acceptable and we let people know that.

I personally have a great relationship with a lot of government officials – the ones that actually know me know that I’m a nice, reasonable human being. But they also know I’m going to call them out if they don’t live up to the responsibilities of being a human being alive in 2013, let alone a person in a position of power who has a particular ability to move the city forward. I don’t know what they say about me behind closed doors, but I think they all have a healthy respect for somebody who is willing to speak truth to power.

 

As a successful community organizer, you’ve worked for the past 7 years on the ground making all kinds of projects happen in SF. How is technology impacting community organizing? 

At the Wigg Party we run a successful facebook page that really helps us disseminate information and keep our people up to date about things happening in the neighborhood or public meetings that we need numbers for. A lot of times I’ll meet people who find out I help run the Wigg Party and the first thing they’ll say is how much they enjoy the links we put up. So that’s one element that just didn’t exist 10 years ago but it’s a big part of what people think of when they think about the Wigg Party – especially since we don’t really have a physical HQ. Then there are of course tools like Neighborland that allow you to engage with people who you’ve never met but who share your passion for making your community and city better. But at the end of the day there’s really nothing that can replace the face-to-face interaction that is the lifeblood of any community organization. It’s cliche at this point but it’s true – technological tools allow you to develop lots of weak-ties, but it’s the personal connections you make IRL that create the strong ties that will ultimately determine the success of your organization.

 

If a group of citizens wanted to replicate this project in their city, what would be your top three points of advice?

 Find a group of people that you work well with and who bring different skills to the table. [freespace] is obviously a great concept, but we had an equally amazing team making it happen. The only thing that could have stopped us from succeeding was us. Luckily we didn’t really have to deal with interpersonal challenges. It’s good to have different perspectives, but there’s also the “wavelength” test – if somebody is consistently on a totally different page than you, it’s going to produce problems along the way.
Prepare to be surprised. Don’t try to control everything – the whole point is to provide a platform and let other people fill it out. They will come up with amazing ideas that your team would have never considered. It’s important to have basic rules of conduct, but those rules should serve the function of creating an environment that allows people and ideas to prosper. You will be blown away by the latent creativity in your community.
Most importantly, believe in yourselves. If we are to have faith in the future, we must above all have faith in ourselves. The first step in doing something important is believing you are capable of great things.

The City of Lowell, Massachusetts activates vacant real estate downtown

The City of Lowell, Massachusetts, launches Neighborland

Question:
What do people want to see in Lowell, Massachusetts?

Action:
As the Director of the Office of Economic Development in Lowell, Massachusetts, Theresa Park often notices public meetings are not typically attended by a wide swatch of people representing the full diversity of opinions and perspectives present in a community. Fortunately, the internet has revolutionized how we communicate with each other, allowing new approaches to tap into a wider audience, which are particularly useful in guiding community planning efforts. The City of Lowell has undergone signification transformation in the past decade and is committed to continuing its growth. Corresponding changes have resulted in new businesses and new residents – but how can Lowell’s municipal economic development office best identify and address changing demands for goods and service?

After watching a talk about sparking conversation in public space by Neighborland co-founder Candy Chang, Theresa was inspired to create a public installation in Lowell. Her goal is to encourage a broader conversation with the residents of Lowell.  With economic development assistant Erin Findlen she found an unused storefront in Downtown Lowell. They ordered a few hundred “I want ____ in my neighborhood” stickers, they applied them to windows, and encouraged residents to share ideas.

Using the stickers, a Sharpie, and directions to continue the conversation on Neighborland; Theresa Park began to see a dialogue in Lowell come alive. The stickers in public space quickly filled up while neighbors also shared ideas and insights on on Neighborland.  A movie theater showing independent films, filling a prominent empty lot with trees, opening a farm-to-table restaurant, free Wi-Fi access, and  expanded farmers market hours were just a few of the most popular ideas collected.

As the community manager for the project, Erin began to connect residents with people already working to improve the city of Lowell.  Residents picked up on the importance of sharing insights and resources, and organizations like the Lowell Film Collective and the farmers market were invited to participate in the collective dialogue. Organizations already taking action like the Lowell Film Collaborative and the local farmers market were updated and  added resources to help neighbors take action.

Over the past few weeks, Theresa and Erin have started a meaningful dialogue about the development of Lowell. Hundreds of neighbors are participating in the conversation and are now focused on turning these ideas into action.

How to order stickers

Neighborland Stickers

Encourage sharing ideas that matter in your neighborhood using Neighborland stickers. We offer two designs: “I want ____ in my neighborhood” and “I wish this was” based on our co-founder Candy Chang’s original project. We also design custom stickers on request. Contact us with any questions.

Each sticker is a 4.5″ x 3″ rounded-corner rectangle, printed on white vinyl with split paper backing. They are non-destructive, easy to remove, and suitable for outdoor use with a life expectancy of approximately 3 years.

Purchase stickers with a credit card on Square here or send us payment via Paypal.  Stickers are $0.35/each (minimum order of 100 stickers, includes shipping USPS Priority Mail).  When you send your payment total to us via Paypal (stickers@neighborland.com), we will confirm your shipping address via email. Please allow 3 business days production time and  3-5 business days for  shipping in the US.

“I want ___ in my neighborhood” 

100 Neighborland Stickers

“I wish this was” 

100 "I Wish This Was" stickers

Custom design (with printed back)

100 Custom Stickers

Order Online

Mobile Whiteboards:

Often organizations running campaigns fabricate mobile whiteboards that can be re-used to collect input in public space. If you are interested in fabricating a board like this, contact us and we’ll send you design instructions for your local fabricator.

Greenbelt in Mountain View

DIY Toolkit:

We have also created a free toolkit of design files if you would like to print stickers or signage yourself. You can view and download it here. The toolkit includes files of “I want ____ in my neighborhood” signs and stickers as well as logos that can be customized for location as well as language.

League of Awesome Possibilities’s public installation in Ravenswood, Chicago