Strolling over to your neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of sugar or a tool you misplaced in the back of the shed feels so antiquated. In 12 towns around the United States, however, neighbor-to-neighbor communication is making a comeback, all thanks to CommonPlace, a web platform built on enhancing local community engagement.
Founded by former Harvard roommates Peter Davis and Max Novendstern, CommonPlace was inspired by Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. In the book, Putnam highlights how disconnected we’ve become from our family, friends and neighbors, warning that our stock of social capital and community connections have drastically decreased.
At the end of the book, Putnam challenges young people to invent new ways to get involved in their community. And that call to action was just what Davis and Novendstern needed to build the foundation of CommonPlace.
“We were sitting on that challenge,” Davis says. “The Boston startup scene was taking off, the iPad came out, The Social Network was being filmed.” The timing couldn’t have been better, as more people began thinking of college students as those who had the power to create these various networks and platforms. “We were thinking community needs to be revitalized,” Davis admits, and they wanted to use “the tools of the Internet” to do just that.
They launched the first CommonPlace in Davis’s hometown of Falls Church, Virginia. Through the platform, community members can create a profile and post conversation starters, requests and events, propose a meet-up or publicize a service or organization. Other members in the community can then respond publicly to any thread or click on the poster’s profile and send a private message.
Each user is verified by the CommonPlace team via their street address, and is also asked to use their full name. “We want this this to be a real identity site,” Davis says. “We care just as much about you meeting your neighbor as we do about you getting stuff from them.”
Because of that, CommonPlace has been built as a site people aren’t just clicking around on. In Davis’s mind, people are looking at CommonPlace for three minutes a day, finding a neighbor or a civic meeting, and then closing their computer to meet that neighbor or attend the civic meeting. “The site gets you connected to real people,” Davis says.
After launching in Falls Church last year, there are now 1,400 people interacting in the town’s CommonPlace. To prove the success wasn’t a fluke, the team launched in 11 other cities. Twelve towns later, CommonPlace has roughly 10,000 neighbors using it.
To get towns on board, Davis said they put out a call to action, and received responses from various community centers and mayors, claiming they’d like to use CommonPlace as a communication tool for their town. Before launching in a new place, Davis claims they contact every civic leader and discuss with them their civic needs, encouraging deeper engagement.
To boost visibility, local businesses might hand out CommonPlace fliers, or the library might create bookmarks with the information for CommonPlace on them. The actual CommonPlace team tries to step away from the marketing. “[The platform] will only be useful for the town if the town gets to the point of organizing itself on it,” Davis admits.
Currently, the team is working toward a potential all-Massachusetts launch, as well as a re-design in the fall. “Hopefully, early next year, we start a major expansion,” Davis says. Meaning, hopefully, early next year, we begin to see our social capital slowly start to rise.
To hear what neighbors have to say about CommonPlace, check out the video below.