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Case #1838

Networking the Neighborhood


After moving to a new neighborhood in Burlington, Vermont in 2000, Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, set about to get to know their neighbors and to build a sense of community within their new neighborhood. After one failed attempt at this, Michael implemented “Plan B” which was to establish a neighborhood on-line forum. So was born the Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum, which he ran as a volunteer effort for six years. Forget the World Wide Web—this one barely stretches four blocks. And no video, no rating systems, no celebrities, no hyperlinks, just the daily rhythm of neighborhood life. “It grew steadily, from 10 or 20 percent of the neighborhood to the point where by 2006 we had 90 percent of the neighborhood signed up,” says Wood-Lewis. Following the success of his own neighborhood experiment, Wood-Lewis quit his job and to start offering the (neighborhood form) service across all of Chittenden County, Vermont’s largest. Within two years, FrontPorchForum.com reached 13,000 households, participating in more than 100 neighborhood forums, some of them in inner-city neighborhoods where the main topics were how to fight graffiti and drive away drug dealers; some in rural towns where you get messages like: “We have four Indian Runner drakes who we expected to be females and lay beautiful round eggs. Instead we have these guys who really need some girls!!!”


THE STRATEGY: Use a Web-based forum to establish a specific neighborhood area information exchange and community building activity.  Help neighbors get to know and assist each other. 

WHAT WORKS:  (1) In his (Michael’s) hand, the Net has become a way to meet people not half a world but half a block away. (2) An article in Cottage Living magazine helped to promote the forum by noting the desirability of the neighborhood due to its electronic forum. (3) Front Porch Forum may already be the most important source of information for many Vermonters, who have watched their newspapers lay off reporters and shrink coverage. (4) This is replicable and low cost.  It can be run by a volunteer, once the Web site forum has been set up. 

IMPORTANT POINTS: (1) “My sense was that this skill of neighborliness had eroded,” says Wood-Lewis, citing data like the Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone. “If you could increase social capital in a neighborhood—that is, your network of who you know and how well you know them—then your involvement increases. If you’re among strangers, you’re not going to volunteer for the Girl Scouts.” (2) Our declining economy has led to what sociologists call “an uptick of neighboring.” (3) At the University of Pennsylvania, Keith Hampton runs a website for community groups with over 50,000 members, and the volume of messages grew 25 percent between 2008 and 2009. “I don’t think people will create silos and hide in houses to shield themselves from hard times,” he says. “They’re going to look for people to help solve these problems. Those tend to be your neighbors.”

Location: Burlington, Vermont, USA
Action: Education/P.R.
Setting: Developed World
Extent of Action: Local
Issues: Human Rights, Resources
Year(s): 2000
Outcome successful
Source: In These Times, June 2010, back cover


FrontPorchForum.com, and read EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, April) © 2010 by Bill McKibben.

Prepared By: s
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