How to use Nextdoor.com to effect Neighborhood Change

Using Nextdoor to Effect Neighborhood Change

nextdoor.comI posted an article about my love of Nextdoor.com and why it’s useful a few years ago. Since then, my thinking about nextdoor.com has changed and grown. I see Nextdoor as a much more powerful tool for neighborhood change than I did in the past. Here are some of the ways I’ve been encouraging my neighbors to make changes that may be for the better. I encourage you to read through these and give this a try – if you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or write me. Thanks.

  1. You start the conversation. If you want to try to move the needle on an issue it’s great to initiate the conversation on Nextdoor. This allows you to choose which neighborhoods (just yours or others around you) are part of the conversation. For instance, if you’re missing a kitten – you probably just want to alert your neighborhood. If you’re trying to show people a better way to park, the further the reach the better. And, if you’re trying to raise funds to save a theater or movie store – working with friends in other parts of the City is a great way to get maximum coverage. Also, by starting the conversation – you can clearly explain in detail what you’re talking about and action steps for people to take. You can also moderate the tone of the conversation and possibly edit the original post once new information is added to the thread.
  2. Something is broken on the internet. Eventually, or possibly right away, someone will pooh-pooh your idea or disagree with it, or go off-topic. There’s a wide variety of responses people have when they’re presented with information asking them to change their behavior. I started a conversation recently on why loud motorcycles are not such a great thing. You can imagine the push-back – everything from “having a loud bike saved someone’s life” to “freedom!”.  You just toughen up and get used to it. It’s not necessary to respond to every comment in a thread – and, if someone is mean or posting irrelevant information you can “mute” them. I don’t recommend this as a common practice, but it may make your life a little less stressful. I think in the 5 or so years I’ve been active on Nextdoor.com I’ve muted 2-3 people. I often will write the person directly and try to get a discussion going.
  3. Nextdoor is different than other social media platforms in a number of ways.  I suppose each one has its own flavor or way of operation.  One issue with Nextdoor is that there are no sub-threads – so, we’ve got this long thread, for example – with lots of great ideas; links and good thinking. If we had sub-threads – some questions would suddenly branch out into their own conversation. Instead, when an issue is raised – it suddenly steers the conversation for a bit (or, people ignore it; or worse – people mute the person who has made the comment – and never see that person’s comments again!) (I’m sure more than one person has muted me 🙂

    One solution to this or sense I have – is that if you’re going to post anything on Nextdoor – esp. within a conversation – take a moment to make your point. Longer, careful explanations of your thinking beat short retorts (which also may end up out of order and make no sense at all!)  Snarky comments – or questions that don’t exactly follow the stream may get ignored and the person posting probably will end up looking foolish. 

  4. Spelling, grammar – double-check… Providing links to back up your comments/points – are probably all good things to consider.

    Like with all social media – you’re basically shouting to a large group of people – so take a moment and review what you’ve written to make sure it makes sense – and try for clarity. Sarcasm, and wittiness can easily confuse people.

  5. Remind people about the issue every once in a while. I you have new information to share or you just think it’s time for the 1,000 people who’ve joined your neighborhood to learn about why it’s not a great idea to beep your car to lock it – add comments to the bottom of the thread. This will add your thread to the digest version that many people get daily and thus keep the conversation top of mind. You’ll be surprised that new people will join the conversation whenever you raise it again often adding valuable information to the neighborhood hive mind.

So, what’s a way that you’d like to see your neighborhood grow and change?  Want to start community potlucks?  Get more people to rip out their lawn and plant gardens?  Encourage people to use less pesticides?  Whatever it is, take the plunge – give it a try. I think you’ll be surprised that if you can start with a positive tone and stay on topic, you’ll actually have your neighbors listening to you and possibly following your suggestions which will improve life where you live.  I’ve tried this with everything from some of the above to issues like gun control and trying to stop fighter jets from using residential neighborhoods for their flight path. All of the conversations are still there waiting for me or someone else to continually add to them. To me this is the best tool ever invented for local organizing that has ever existed. It’s not perfect (where’s the ride-share aspect 🙂  Dating match-up?  But as it is, this is quite a powerful tool and I recommend giving it a try where you live.

Happy activating!

Albert Kaufman, 5.25.18

PS – even if Nextdoor.com is not popular in your area, hop on and get started. It likely will grow if past behavior is any indication. Also, perhaps you have something similar where you live – use the above guide with whatever platform is available where you live.

Hawthorne Blvd: Three Stories for a Happy Ending

Bagdad TheaterGuest Contribution by Jeff Cole of the Sunnyside Neighborhood, Portland, Oregon

Hawthorne Blvd: Three Stories for a Happy Ending

Close in Southeast Portland neighborhoods have this thing that urban planners love to talk about: sense of place. I can’t help but feel a provincial pride in my own still somewhat scruffy Sunnyside. It’s been over a century in the making after all: not exactly urban, nor suburban – in no way prim, proper, or polished. A bit bohemian without being overt about it. You know where you are; here.

Yet, if our city’s planners and developers have their way – it may well be undone in a few short years. These are no idle fears – the behemoth across from Safeway (SE 27th/Hawthorne) and the four story tragedy next to ¿Por Que No? (soon to be ¿Por Que?) is proof Sunnyside’s sense of place – and indeed the entire Hawthorne District – is on the auction block.

It’s not that so many monumental wonders line much of Hawthorne – glorious Baghdad theatre palace aside. What charms me is the collective mercantilism of Hawthorne’s modest commercial storefronts – an authentic, living vestige that attests to the historical nature of this corridor and others like Belmont and Division.

Hawthorne hosts the small businesses I love and use day in and day out – and others I just enjoy having there. From cat food to dog baths. Beads, yarns, and greeting cards. Fashions new, handmade, and recycled. Herbs and perfumeries. Pipes, vapor cigs, and growlers. Vintage furniture across from retro tattoos. Powell’s and specialty bookstores. Restaurants and close-by grocery stores.

And it is the ease by which Hawthorne Blvd. could lose so much of this – replaced by a parade of Vanilla Deluxe four-six story mixed used boxes a la North Williams – that it causing so much unease. Higher density corridors with greater populations drive up commercial rents that limit the types of businesses that can operate profitably. It’s worth noting that new mixed-used corridors like N. Williams St. have a comparatively limited expression of commercial typologies.

As our city plans for future growth in Southeast Portland, it’s worth noting we’re not talking an old railroad yard morphing into the Pearl nor long gone shipyards now sprouting high rises. We have few large vacant lots like N. Williams St. People already live here; many have for quite some time.

So Memo to Powers That Be: in case you don’t realize it when you look west from Mt. Tabor there’s a wealth of moderately dense and immensely livable neighborhoods amongst the sea of trees. Our success is not the product of Urban Renewal Areas or generous public investments – our story is the cumulative uplift achieved by numerous small businesses and homeowners.

Historical Axis

Drawing lines: that’s the foundation of local SE PDX history. There’s a stone set yonder in Portland’s West Hills just off Skyline Blvd. – the survey marker originally staked in 1851 defines an east-west “Baseline” that shoots arrow straight all the way to Oregon’s eastern border. In Southeast Portland this “baseline” is Stark St. – along which lies the Lone Fir Cemetery where James Hawthorne himself rests in peace.

A little over a hundred years later planners drew another line – to bulldoze a freeway eastward through 1800 buildings. The Mt. Hood Freeway would have pummeled Division St (named so being one mile of due south Stark St.) until about 40th St before jutting south to destroy Powell Blvd. Southeast Portland neighborhoods fought back in the early 1970’s – and won. The resulting solution – today’s MAX line running from Gateway into Downtown along the already existing transit corridor of I84 & the Union Pacific railroad is proof paths can be changed.

These days one senses an unanswered question: is it time for close-in SE PDX neighborhoods to rise up again? For the bulldozers are back flattening hundred year old homes framed in old growth wood. The Mt. Hood Freeway has returned – deconstructed into a wider blight – as over 1800 structures are demolished every four years in Portland. And like the freeway that thankfully never was – we are told this must be in the name of progress.

The Sky is Not the Limit

For decades zoning along Hawthorne Blvd. and many historical corridors has stated a forty five foot build able height limit. In terms of property ownership – this is called a “right” – a kind of sacred promise that directly impacts land values.

Until the turn of the century – only buildings with specialized uses neared the 45 foot height limit: the soaring Bagdad roof, or church steeples, or schools. Even during the late 1990s new commercial storefronts on Hawthorne were one or two stories.

One might argue – in terms of the historical relationship between these corridors and the abutting residential housing – that code never intended the construction of solid (often block long) 4-6 story volumetric buildings. That is to say – the implied conditional use at the time involved new construction typically less than half the height limit in shorter segments of frontage.

Permitted uses along Hawthorne have become more restrictive over time. Unless grand-parented in, new oil changing operations, car repair shops, or drive thru lanes cannot be built as freely as yesterday. That’s how the once proposed McDonalds drive-thru at 34th & Hawthorne (where Dosha stands today) was stopped in its tracks.

One might argue, if permitted usage of properties can be redefined, then usage as expressed through maximum height limits can be revisited, too. Lower height limits could be zoned along SE Hawthorne Blvd. and streets like Belmont and Division.

An Equitable Solution

Given what’s now being built on our historical corridors has been whittled down to the sole typology of McPortland Mixed Use, there are numerous advantages to instituting a 38 foot – or three story – height limit on Hawthorne and other historical corridors:

Because a 4-story mixed used project houses about 50% more residential units than a 3-story version the impacts on neighborhood fabric and infrastructure are dramatically higher with the former. The 3-story limit still allows increased density, and creates ground floor commercial space, while treading more respectfully.
The 3-story height imposes far less visual impact on surrounding single family and garden apartment neighborhoods.
Solar access: even on Hawthorne Blvd. a 4-story building throws a wintertime shadow that reaches across the street up to the first story. Since SE PDX corridors run primary east-west – the cumulative impact of taller buildings means a total loss of direct sunlight for many months. (Other popular streets like NW 23rd and N.Mississippi run north-south and avoid this problem to some degrees).
Even with a 3-story limit higher buildings could be allowed through a carefully controlled bonus height system requiring the builder to provide firm deliverables with community benefit based on neighborhood approval.

More Growth Where It’s Needed

Instead of encouraging excessive growth with the risk of damaging historical and vibrant neighborhoods, there are areas where more rapid development might be appropriate. Portland has already invested heavily in preparing the Gateway district for growth – which can draw on Urban Renewal Area funds. By contrast, close-in Southeast neighborhoods have limited access to resources needed to mitigate the impacts of higher density. Ironically, one of the strongest arguments for developing Gateway is its transit rich location, especially in terms of light rail – a direct result of shutting down the once planned Mt. Hood Freeway.

Whether some of Portland’s neighborhoods are vibrant in the long-haul may well hinge on providing more than a parade of formulaic four-six story mixed used buildings punctuated only by supermarkets. The engaging architectural vocabulary that once expressed itself through iconic neighborhood auditoriums and ballrooms, churches and synagogues, bungalows and garden apartments, and other single use structures appears to have no current equivalent. Yet apparently it is a quality much sought after in many close-in Portland districts now experiencing bidding wars on a limited quantity of for-sale single family houses. Perhaps it’s that sense of place that buyers are seeking so very much – somewhere that doesn’t seem like anywhere.

NextDoor.com – The Future Is Here

NextDoor.com – A Great New Way to Meet Your Neighbors and Build Community

nextdoor.com

If you’ve been anywhere near me in the last year or two, or have been reading my newsletter, you’ll know I’ve been doing my best to spread the word about NextDoor.com.

I have been a fan of local all my life. I love the idea of the 20 minute neighborhood – being able to walk to everything you need in 20 minutes – which leads to less car use and having a lighter impact on the Earth. It leads to a lot of other benefits, as well. Not being in a car means you use other modes of transportation such as walking, biking and roller-skating. And while you’re out you end up meeting your neighbors and catching up – sometimes learning important news that you wouldn’t find out any other way. Knowing who lives around you also creates safety as everyone can keep an eye on things. This is what life used to be like in village days of yore. We’ve lost much of this familiarity as the United States has developed suburbs and we’ve designed our world to fit the car rather than what’s best for our thriving.

Enter the internet and social media platform, nextdoor.com. Nextdoor is a combination of social media worlds that many of us are familiar with (particularly, Facebook). Once you’ve signed up (which is a simple process where you, a real person, living at a real address are verified) you suddenly land in the neighborhood you live in on-line. There’s a newsfeed where you can see what your neighbors have posted, and you can also view the feed of your surrounding neighborhoods. For me, that’s North Richmond, Portland, Oregon = 200+ members, and the greater area about 2,000 members. I can connect to the people on my block, or to all the people in about a mile radius around me.

What I’ve seen so far is a mixture of things. People use NextDoor to offer each other extra of what they have (fruit was popular last Summer), kind of like Freecycle, which I helped jumpstart in 2003. The conversations are about everything from people seeking recommendations for home improvements; bodyworkers; tech support; local events; to neighborhood-watch type notifications about break-ins; missing pets and the like.  There’s also a fair bit of discussion about how our neighborhoods are developing. Currently, in the neighborhood I live in there has been an increase in old houses being torn down to be replaced by much larger scale buildings and that’s led to a lot of discussion of where we’re headed as a neighborhood and city.  These type of discussions used to happen on community discussion lists and at neighborhood council meetings, but this new forum provides an opportunity to use collaborative technology at the neighborhood level.  Without ads! Then, there are the yardsales and notices from the City and other odds and ends – things for sale; re-posts of Craigs List ads; homes for sale or rent; and new groups forming (the first of these I have seen is a local singles group).

There are many reasons why I am so gung-ho about Nextdoor.com. As someone who has been involved in high-tech for years, I am always excited when I see something come along that will help on a local level. I see this as that – a way for us all to get closer – to build community resilience through locals being in each others’ lives more. To make local bonds rather than keeping up networks that take a lot of fossil fuel to maintain. NextDoor also dovetails with another passion of mine: Farm My Yard. Farm My Yard is an effort to connect homeowners who have sunny yards with those who have urban farming skills and would like to grow food, but are lacking the space to do it. I also see Farm My Yard as a possible youth employment/business opportunity. In my dream I see teenagers using the Farm My Yard agreements and walking their neighborhoods to find a few yards to farm. This can and does lead to real income; vegetables for all; and less trips to the grocery store for everyone.

Farm My Yard

So, for me, it’s all coming together – and, I hope, we’re coming together. I see these types of developments leading to something fantastic in the future. Nextdoor.com is not perfect yet – it doesn’t always correctly identify neighborhood boundaries; the tech support can be iffy; disputes are left up to neighborhood “leaders” who sometimes make questionable calls; and I’m sure there are other imperfections, as well. That said, for now, this is one horse I am betting on! And, I recommend, if you’re not a member yet that you give it a try and see what you find. If you have comments, please leave them below.

For a better world,

Albert Kaufman
February 21, 2015

Update: 6.25.18Here’s a new article about Nextdoor by yours truly – about How to use it effectively for neighborhood change

March 4, 2015 NYT Article

9.24.15 – My neighbors pulled together via a great conversation on Nextdoor.com to preserve some giant trees and build community at the same time in Portland, Oregon, The United States.

2015-09-22 09.46.51