We’re thrilled to announce a new partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Within the program’s resilience framework, we will help city agencies build an “inclusive, integrated, and transparent mechanism for communication and coordination between local government and residents.” City governments will have access to our human-centered design tools to engage residents in public space and at community events. And they can upload this data to Neighborland to extend stakeholder engagement online, map ideas and insights, update residents with resources and events, and share this public data securely and openly.
By 2050 the world’s population will approach 10 billion people. 75% of us will live in cities. That means that 5 billion people will move to, or be born in, cities in the next 35 years. Given all of the challenges that cities currently face, how will cities become more resilient during this period of exponential growth? Clearly, it will take innovation at all levels of the city “stack” — water and sewer management systems, power grids, public transit, housing, and economic opportunity.
We believe that cities must also innovate at the fundamental layer of the stack — the human layer. Remember that we can have complete streets, solar powered transit, and foolproof infrastructure … but we cannot have a city without people. Cities are one of civilization’s most promising inventions. They occupy 2% of the world’s land, contain 50% of its population, and account for 80% of the world’s economic output. How people collaborate within these dynamic and complex systems is one of the great opportunities of the 21st century.
In The Resilience Dividend, Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin states, “we need to strengthen and improve our approaches to governance and leadership, knowledge creation, communication, community development, and social cohesion.” The good news is that we have the technical knowledge to solve most of the wicked problems we face. What leaders need are ways to accelerate the process of building legitimate buy-in from their stakeholders. Otherwise, technical expertise is useless. Our purpose at Neighborland is to help city leaders build this consensus in a legitimate and lasting way … as quickly as possible.
As part of our partnership, we are encouraging cities to rapidly test solutions generated from their strategic planning outreach. These “tactical urbanist” or “lighter, quicker, cheaper” interventions demonstrate a responsive, action-oriented approach to challenges and empower stakeholders to gain a deeper understanding of tradeoffs and potential solutions. During this iterative process, successes and failures can be shared on Neighborland with our simple publishing tools.
We’ve worked with over 150 city agencies, local non-profits, universities, and foundations over the past few years, and we’re ready to help 100 Resilient Cities with our tools and expertise. We’re joining a remarkable group of organizations who are supporting this initiative as platform partners, including the World Bank, MIT, and Microsoft. We’re excited to contribute to this global effort with the guidance of the foundation that supported us from our founding days in New Orleans.
Thanks to you, 2014 was our most successful year to date. Hundreds of thousands of people participated on Neighborland across the U.S. We collectively contributed over 100,000+ hours of action to make our neighborhoods more healthy, vibrant, and sustainable. Thank you for stepping up!
We worked on 25 projects in San Francisco and the Bay Area, partnering with ten city agencies, four universities, and several local non-profits. We launched our first partnerships in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. And we continued work in Chicago, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Seattle. Unsurprisingly, our partners continued to challenge us, helping us craft our vision and build more effective tools. In short, we’ve learned a tremendous amount this year, and we’re excited to continue developing our platform to help civic organizations across the U.S.
Here are a few of our favorite partnerships from the past year …
Market Street Prototyping Festival
San Francisco Planning Department, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Knight Foundation, Gehl Studio, Exploratorium, Autodesk
We partnered with the City of San Francisco’s Planning Department, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Knight Foundation on the Market Street Prototyping Festival. Fifty project teams were selected to prototype new design solutions for engaging residents in public space. We posted all of the projects on Neighborland, and the design teams shared their process over the 6 month program. Teams unlocked a variety of community assets on Neighborland, including finding space to store their projects, raising additional funds, and sharing their insights from the process.
Over 250,000 residents in the Bay Area participated in the festival on Market Street, and 15,000 people shared their feedback online. All of this data will inform the City’s $450m capital improvement of Market Street in 2018. As SF Planning lead Neil Hrushowy stated, “We believe in public spaces that are about the ideas and aspirations of the public themselves. And not us telling them what they should be aspiring to.”
President Leslie Wong led a highly collaborative strategic planning effort at SF State over the past 18 months. The team engaged a diverse set of stakeholders in common areas on campus, at workshops and town halls, through SMS, Twitter, and on Neighborland. The steering committee achieved an unprecedented breadth of engagement with the campus, collecting over 10,000 insights from students, faculty, alumni, and staff about the future of the university.
Here’s a video about the university’s process and the partnership with Neighborland.
Placemaking at Wayne State University
Wayne State University President Roy Wilson and the Office of Economic Development’s launched an innovative placemaking program on campus last fall. The project team engaged over 500 stakeholders at a series of events, and online via SMS, Twitter, and Neighborland. Events included PARK(ing) Day, the WSU Farmer’s Market, Student Org Day, and the homecoming football game. All of this data was aggregated onto Wayne State’s project on Neighborland, and the Office of Economic Development is now testing several community-generated ideas on campus.
City of San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), San Francisco Beautiful, University of California Hastings, Tenderloin Economic Development Project (TEDP), Art Institute of California, City of SF Department of Public Works
We provided our real-world and online toolkit for San Francisco Beautiful’s “Pause, Play Connect” program last summer. SF Beautiful was awarded a grant from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development’s Invest in Neighborhoods program to test new programming ideas in UN Plaza. The goal of the program was to find ways to make the city’s “most underperforming public space” a safer, healthier, vibrant community asset.
Over 1500 neighbors in the Tenderloin and Central Market shared ideas and insights at a public meeting, a voting event in the plaza, and online with SMS, Twitter, and Neighborland. Locals wanted to see activities that brought the diverse groups of people in the neighborhood together, and several ideas rose to the top of the honest and open dialogue — activities for children, film and music, and a night market.
SF Beautiful led the implementation of these ideas with a series called “Pause, Play, Connect” from August to October 2014. Tens of thousands of neighbors have participated in the program, and the Friday Night Market has become a regular event in the plaza.
Learn more about the process and outcomes from this partnership here.
Living Beyond Expectations
The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) “Living Beyond Expectations” project temporarily transformed two blocks of Auburn Avenue in Old 4th Ward into a model Lifelong Community. ARC worked closely with Street Plans and Better Block to design the program model. The project started with a visioning workshop with community leaders. From there, the tactical urban intervention was planned by Street Plans with support from Better Block. All of the ideas were posted on Neighborland, and the team continued to collect ideas for improving the community at the event. This project was generously supported by the Pfizer Foundation.
Central Market and Tenderloin Community Benefit Agreements
City of San Francisco’s Office of City Administrator, Neighborhood Empowerment Network, Twitter, Zendesk, Spotify, Zoosk
San Francisco City Administrator Naomi Kelly partnered with five Central Market companies (Zendesk, Twitter, Spotify, Zoosk, Yammer) and several local non-profits to collect residents’ insights for the City’s Central Market Community Benefit Agreement (CBA) program. The City hosted two public workshops facilitated by the Neighborhood Empowerment Network, and extended this outreach on SMS and Twitter. With the support of sixteen community partners, the project team collected insights from over a thousand participants who contributed over 80 hours of their time to the project.
Miraloma Park Improvement Club, MIT Urban Risk Lab, City of San Francisco Department of Earthquake Preparedness and NERT Program, Ingleside Police Department
We continued our partnership with Neighborhood Empowerment Network(NEN) with projects in Bayview, Miraloma Park, and Diamond Heights. The Resilient Miraloma Park project engaged over a thousand residents in a series of workshops to help the neighborhood be better prepared for challenges like heat waves and earthquakes. NEN partnered with the MIT Urban Risk Lab to design, plan, and facilitate the workshops with the Miraloma Park Improvement Club. We helped facilitate and uploaded all of the asset-mapping and solutions-generation data on Neighborland. This project will result in an action plan later this year.
I Heart Hutch
Hutchinson Community Foundation, City of Hutchinson, Downtown Hutchinson, Hutchinson/Reno County County Chamber of Commerce, Hutchinson Recreation Commission, Reno County, and United Way of Reno County
The Hutchinson Community Foundation launched I Heart Hutch to collect the community’s insights on how to improve their community. Over 700 residents participated at workshops, community events, and online. The Foundation and their partners hosted the Envision Hutch Unconference in March 2015 where seven residents received $15,000 grants to implement their projects. All of the insights collected during this project are being used as a framework for the City of Hutchinson’s Comprehensive Plan, set to start in spring 2015.
Our mission is to help all residents shape the development of their neighborhoods. We 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. Again, a sincere thank you to all of the residents, organizations, and cities who collaborated to make great ideas happen this past year on Neighborland.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
Everyone, especially music lovers
How does this event make UN Plaza a better place?
Supporting local artists
Enjoyable and relaxing experience
A space makeover with music
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!
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 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 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.
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.
The League of Awesome Possibilities engaged residents with a series of events and workshops to plan the future development of Ravenswood, Chicago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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 events, resources, 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.
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.
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 $2500 per truck, fees paid to the City of New Orleans could be as much as $250,000 in recurring annual revenue. $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.
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.
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.
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.