Neighborhoods gathering places like coffee shops, diners, and post offices have long been a cornerstone to community life in America. But there have been some striking changes in how we keep abreast of local news and participate in neighborhood life. PCJ editor Wayne Senville reflects on the ways a new electronic bulletin board launched in northwestern Vermont  — the Front Porch Forum — is strengthening neighborhood ties and serving as a Placemaking catalyst.

On Main Street in Burlington, VT, the town where Front Porch Forum launched. Flickr photo via origamidon.

By Wayne Senville, Editor of the Planning Commissioner’s Journal

Historians have documented the central role that taverns and coffee houses have long played as places for people to exchange news and information. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg has also highlighted the valuable service that these and other “third places,” as he calls them, have performed in knitting together communities and integrating newcomers and immigrants into their new place of residence. Here’s some of what Oldenburg had to say in an article he wrote for the Planning Commissioners Journal:

“Americans long enjoyed third places in the form of the inns and ordinaries of colonial society, then as the saloons and general stores springing up with westward expansion. Later came the candy stores, soda fountains, coffee shops, diners, etc. which, along with the local post office, were conveniently located and provided the social anchors of community life.

… Third places also serve as “ports of entry” for visitors and newcomers to the neighborhood where directions and other information can easily be obtained. For new residents, they provide a means of getting acquainted quickly and learning where things are and how the neighborhood works.”

In many neighborhoods, you’ll still find these kind of gathering stops, sometimes taverns, sometimes grocery or convenience stores, sometimes a donut shop, and sometimes even the laundromat.

Toward a New Community Message Board

For years, a common sight outside many of these places was the message board, where neighbors left word about a missing dog, a yard sale, an apartment to rent, a community meeting … and where candidates for city council, alderman, school board, or mayor placed their campaign posters.  But fast forward to 2011. Email and Facebook is where we often “talk.” Many bemoan this, feeling it has weakened civic life and resulted in a loss of connection within our neighborhoods. And, yes, count me among those who’ve made such claims.

Yet something quite remarkable has emerged in Burlington and other Vermont towns. A locally-developed email-based message service, called Front Porch Forum, has established itself as the key way many residents now keep in touch with neighborhood concerns: by posting announcements, notices, offers of help, requests for help … and also debating a variety of local issues.

Michael Wood-Lewis

Valerie and Michael Wood-Lewis started up the precursor to today’s Front Porch Forum (FPF) in their own small “Five Sisters” neighborhood six years ago. Their mission was and remains: “to help neighbors connect and foster community within the neighborhood.” In 2007, the Orton Foundation recognized the Front Porch Forum with its 2007 Innovator in Place Award.

Launched in Burlington in 2006, FPF has exploded in popularity. Remarkably, more than 50 percent of Burlington (pop. 40,000) households subscribe to FPF! This means that there’s a critical mass of users. Front Porch has become the “place” people think of first when looking to find out what’s happening in their neighborhood, or to post an announcement.

Front Porch Forum is successful in part because it’s so simple to use. Just type your message and either email it to FPF or post it on their web site. They reformat and distribute it as part of a grouping of messages (one or more times each week, depending on the level of activity in the particular neighborhood).

It’s important to realize that there are many Front Porch Forums, since each neighborhood has its own FPF email list. However, city departments and local officials can post messages in multiple neighborhoods when an issue is of citywide (or ward-wide) interest.

This past month, local farmers (such as Dave Zuckerman seen here) have used Front Porch Forum to alert Burlington residents to the availability of locally grown produce.

While you can learn more by visiting the Front Porch Forum web site, here is an excerpt from some correspondence I had with Michael Wood-Lewis two years ago:

Wayne Senville: What sort of questions get asked on the Front Porch forums? Has the networking that Front Porch Forum enables led to any local actions that might be of particular interest to planners or planning commissioners?

Michael Wood-Lewis: Front Porch Forum is used frequently by residents to announce, discuss and organize for or against development projects … Williston landfill, Southern Connector, Circ highway, Moran plant, Appletree Point senior housing, on and on.  FPF gets dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people tuned into planning-related issues. It should be noted, that after Town Meeting, the postings reverted back toward FPF’s bread and butter … lost cat, seeking apartment, car break-in report, etc. FPF members talk about feeling an increased sense of community ownership. A survey found that 45% of respondents reported “speaking up or getting involved on any public or policy issue
as a result of subscribing to Front Porch Forum.”

Wayne Senville: How much of a financial commitment does it take to make Front Porch Forum work? Are there any other factors important to its success?

Michael Wood-Lewis: Front Porch Forum’s success to date is due to many factors, including its inclusion of a moderator. Doing this kind of thing well requires resources. FPF operates as a small business covering a growing number of cities and towns in Vermont. It generates revenue from advertising, municipal subscriptions, and other sources to cover its costs. This business model is promising at this early stage, but has not yet fully developed.

Another ingredient to Front Porch Forum’s early success is that it is not beholden to any single interest.  All FPF’s decisions are made in an effort to fulfill its mission of helping neighbors connect and foster community at the neighborhood level.

Using Front Porch Forum to Increase Public Involvement

Another interesting observation Wood-Lewis made is that Front Porch Forum can actually increase citizen interest in local government meetings and public involvement. For example, he received this comment from a steering committee member on one of Burlington’s neighborhood organizations: “We had a great turn out at the Neighborhood Planning Assembly meeting this past week — 80 plus people and almost all of them are on the Front Porch Forum. We have had three great meetings with numbers above 50 this fall thanks to the free advertising on Front Porch Forum.”

In Burlington, Front Porch Forum is used by "neighborhood planning associations" (NPAs) to highlight upcoming meetings. Here, members of an NPA are doing a walk through of the nearby University of Vermont campus. Front Porch Forum has helped boost attendance at neighborhood meetings and events.

Another Burlington resident noted that: “having been active in our local neighborhood (and on the community association board for a year), I’ve certainly seen the value. People will say ‘Oh, yeah, I saw that on the forum.’ I’ve had neighbors, some of whom I didn’t know, contact me specifically because of notes I’ve posted. Sometimes by email, sometimes by phone and also in person. It has connected our local community together more – and it’s been an interesting experiment to watch.”

Front Porch Forum demonstrates that “modern” forms of communication don’t have to weaken community bonds — when used thoughtfully, they can actually help bring a community or neighborhood together.

Have you used Front Porch Forum? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.