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Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World

Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World
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“It’s not that people care less about community,” she notes. “It’s that the economy has shifted how much people have to work to keep up their standard of living. You don’t have one of the two partners home during the day making all those social connections, providing some sense of safety to the neighborhood. People have less disposable time than they used to.”

In a world like that, a system that lets you sit down for 10 minutes at the end of the day and learn what’s happened to your neighbors should, in Comerford’s view, earn Wood-Lewis one of those MacArthur “genius” grants. Wood-Lewis would probably welcome the recognition of his idea, and the check would come in handy, too. The forums aren’t breaking even yet: Subscriptions are free, and revenue comes from a few unobtrusive ads at the bottom of each e-mail. Also, city government pays a fee for the right to post public notices on the system. “With a few hundred thousand dollars of development money, we could put this software in a box and set it up anywhere,” Wood-Lewis predicts.

Which would mean one more good New England idea spreading out across the country: people everywhere able to, say, ask their neighbors if they had some topsoil, or maybe a cake pan. (“I’ve decided to move beyond my comfort zone and make a torte for a Passover seder to which I’ve been invited. For this I’d need a 9-inch springform pan. Yes, I could buy one. But I’d rather borrow one for this first and probably only attempt.”)

It would mean that more people could borrow a compost tumbler, or find out about a new study at the university on the effect of caffeine on snoring, or see whether anyone wanted to go halves on a grass-fed steer from a local farmer. It would mean that everyone could see the wish list for donations for newly arrived African immigrants who’ll be planting gardens come spring (wheelbarrows, rakes, hoes, scales), or find out about the neighborhood plant swap (“We just want all our perennials to go to good homes”) or which porch to visit if they want to rummage through big bags of “dress-up and costume clothes.” “Seeking moped repairs,” “Ethiopian food available,” fourth graders selling honey-glazed donuts to fund their trip to the science museum (made with local wheat!).

It would mean we could all be the good neighbors we’d like to be. “There was a mother near us, with a teenage daughter who was having a birthday,” Wood-Lewis recalls. “The girl wanted to go canoeing with her friends for her birthday, but when her mother checked out the price of renting canoes, it was too high. Her daughter said, ‘I see lots of canoes in backyards around here,’ but her mother said, ‘You can’t just ask people you don’t know for their boats.’

“Still, she put a one-line notice on the forum, saying they needed six canoes. Before the day was out, people were coming by. I mean, there were canoes just piling up in their front yard. She wrote me a note afterwards: ‘What a great feeling. What a great reminder of how to be a community. Why didn’t I get to know these people 10 years ago?'”

READ PART I: The Maine Way

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9 Responses to Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World

  1. Roy Brown March 3, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    Love it! McKibben hits the nail on the head… this is one of those New England tools that should be in every community across the country. We just weathered a stormy Town Meeting Day this week, and neighbors talked with neighbors for weeks in advance about the issues in ADVANCE of Town Meeting, leading to better results… and Front Porch Forum played a large roll. I had lots of talks with local folks about the issues at the market, school, workplace, etc… and they usually started with “did you read what so and so said about X on Front Porch Forum?” And then we were off and running. Before FPF, I rarely spoke to these people. Good call Yankee… you’re improving with each issue lately.

  2. Trisha Craig March 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    This story is so simple, moving, and inspiring! What a great way to solve the bizarre problem of not knowing who your neighbors are. I love it!!

  3. William McAleer March 5, 2010 at 2:13 am #

    This was great!!! I’ve been living on 25 ann rd in long valley, nj since May 1992 and rarely see my neighbors even in spring or summer, never mind in the dead of winter! this article says 2nd in a series, I think I missed the first one, anyone know about it? thanks so much!!!

  4. Barbara Hall March 5, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    Thanks for your interest. Part I is “The Maine Way.” There’s a link at the beginning and end of this article, or you can copy this URL: http://www.yankeemagazine.com/issues/2010-01/features/Maine-jobs-sports-winter

  5. Laura Lewandowski March 7, 2010 at 6:56 am #

    Wonderful article. I just moved to a Vermont community with a FPF from a neighborhood in the western US that was purposefully platted to discourage interaction with one’s neighbors. That was a cold existence, let me tell you. After just one week I know more about my new area than I did after six years in the other neighborhood, and can’t wait to get started in the life of the greater community. It is pretty wonderful.

  6. Remy Steel March 7, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    Great article. Mr. Wood-Lewis should indeed receive as many awards as available for his effort in this very difficult mission to connect neighbors. Neighborhoods are indeed on a decline across the country. We have been feeling it and recent research confirms it. With the same passion and sense of urgency to connect neighbors, I started something similar in the East but that makes it really easy, fast and free to bring any neighborhood online. http://www.ToolzDO.com is a social platform dedicated to connecting neighbors and building community. You get the same benefits and more at no cost, no setup time, with less resources and overhead to maintain. We have members in over 200 cities in the US and span across 3 continents. Check it out. It’s all free which enables faster adaptation. We actually pay community builders and organizers who bring their community online and charge nothing for customization. Thus far it has been a labor of love as well. I think distributing the love and resources on a common and tightly integrated platform would have the greatest impact in this movement to reconnect neighbors. By harnessing technology the limits of community size or administrative borders can be removed and neighbors can truly be connected to the neighbors near them or in their own backyard.

  7. Michael Wood-Lewis March 8, 2010 at 12:08 am #

    Thanks to Bill McKibben and Yankee Magazine for shining a spotlight on all the wonderful community building underway by Vermonters through Front Porch Forum. Thanks too to the commenters above and the folks Bill quoted in the article. We look forward to expanding to other communities. If interested, go to http://frontporchforum.com/join and let us know!

  8. Michael Wood-Lewis March 8, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    P.S. And we greatly appreciate the two dozen VT state legislators who are co-sponsoring a resolution honoring Front Porch Forum this month… http://bit.ly/bRa9HM

  9. Steven Clift March 8, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    Excellent story. What the Front Porch Forum has done extremely well is create a network of small scale semi-private spaces among neighbors. Over here in Minnesota (mostly, but also England some) we’ve been working our way down from city-wide online civic forums to the larger, but still public neighborhood level (a few thousand households in my case where I have about 450 of 4,000 households on a forum … we just had a potluck last night). According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, some 4% of American adults say they are on a neighborhood e-mail list. With FPF and sites like NeighborsforNeighbors.org in Boston and my E-Democracy.org we are the most visible because we serve multiple communities. So whether you work to bring FPF to your community or doing your own thing, it is time to bring this idea to the other 96% of people!! I am trying to connect anyone interested in building local communities online here: http://e-democracy.org/locals

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