Roseville offers a new way 'to neighborhood'

It was an idea that percolated after a block party and then got an entire city involved.

Roseville residents are being encouraged to try out the website, where they can join neighborhood groups to discuss common interests and concerns.

Roseville communications specialist Carolyn Curti says the site looked like a nice complement to neighborhood watch programs run through the police department. It will serve a different purpose, though, she says, and will be entirely run by citizens, not the city.

"We liked the concept because it's free and it's going to be helping to build neighborhood by neighbors having that connectivity," she says.

The city's part was designing "constellations" -- of about 1,000 households each -- that center on parks or other community features to start centering Nextdoor groups geographically.

That's pretty much the end of the city's involvement, Curti stresses. Police or fire departments -- or street construction planners -- can send notifications to the neighborhood groups, but can't see the discussions and certainly don't lead them.

"Within each constellation the city cannot see the conversations that are going on -- we have nothing to do with that," she says. "It's a private social network."

The only organizers on Nextdoor neighborhood sites are the two or three people called "leads" in the groups, she explains. "Nextdoor may ask the people who seem to be most active to be a 'lead,' and that just means they're Nextdoor's contact if there's troubleshooting that needs to be done or a complaint about a certain posting."

Resident and human rights commission member Kathy Ramundt brought the site to the city's attention after seeing a story about it in a daily newspaper. Curti and City Manager Bill Malinen researched it from there.

The pair researched the concept, which is currently being adopted by neighborhoods and cities nationwide, and quizzed Nextdoor staff during a teleconference.

"My job was being devil's advocate for our residents, asking about security, cost and whether people would be inundated with emails. They answered every question," Curti recalls. "They were very responsive to our concerns and questions.

Though people may initially be taken aback by signing into a site with their real name, email address and home address, she notes Nextdoor is a "https" secured site, much like credit-card and banking sites.

"We've been happy with how it's been set up," she says.

Currently, Nextdoor is looking at providing "niche" ads alongside messages, much like Google does, she adds.

Roseville is the first city in Minnesota where the city is helping set up the neighborhoods, but it's been joined by its sister city in California; Roseville, Calif. will be launching its Nextdoor in May.

Taking the block party online

As a member of the neighborhood and community task force for Roseville's human rights commission, Kathy Ramundt decided she should at least try some of the ideas the task force advocates.

So she hosted a block party -- the first for years in her Laurie Avenue neighborhood -- and half the block attended. "It just proved that people really want to connect," she said. "So many people said they wanted to do it but didn't know how."

"On this task force, we've been challenged with 'What is a neighborhood in Roseville?'" she explains. "There are a lot of neighborhood watches in Roseville, but someone has to take them on, and those neighborhood watch block captains have a lot of responsibility, getting everyone's email addresses or phone numbers and keeping them current.

"Nextdoor isn't going to replace the neighborhood watches, and it's much easier to run. We create the neighborhood and everybody signs themselves up. There can be someone as a 'lead' but basically it kind of runs itself."

Ramundt says she and another interested neighbor recently walked their neighborhood and handed out flyers about Nextdoor, and by the time they'd gotten home from the distribution four people had signed up.

"People want to do this. . . Every few days I'm getting someone new." They currently have 35 households signed up, which Ramundt says is 20 percent of the neighbors they contacted.

She expects that the city's "constellations" of 1,000 households will be broken down into much smaller groups. Nextdoor planners apparently think so too; they'll be rolling out ways to make smaller groups this summer.

"With those subgroups, you can just have your small neighborhood or subgroups of people with the same interests," she says. "Say, if I wanted to make a group of just people with kids at the school district in my neighborhood, that could be a subgroup.

Ramundt brushes off concerns about the city introducing the concept. "The city does not control the neighborhood site and can't see any communications on it," she says. "They can send notifications -- say, it there's road work or something -- but neighbors still the people who will run it."

She adds that the site provides security so it's just neighbors who can be involved. "When you start the signup -- you can't use fake name and address -- you sign in with your home address and email and they mail you a postcard with your name and address and a code to sign in. Until that's accepted, you're not a member of the neighborhood."

The kinds of discussions she envisions on include ideas for gatherings, notifications about lost and found items, and information on suspicious activities.

"Last summer, a friend's mom had one of those roofers who travel around in her neighborhood and he ripped her off," Ramundt recalls. "If I'd had that person at my house, I could have sent a message to the neighborhood to say 'Just so you know, there's somebody doing this in the neighborhood.' It'll facilitate us helping look out for each other."

Shared information could range from crime alerts from the city to questions about who owns that overgrown lilac to the age-old question "My power's off -- is everybody's power off?"

Ramundt notes that Nextdoor isn't meant to keep all communication online. She's already seen the face-to-face benefits of the system.

"I posted one day 'I'm going to be sitting on my porch Sunday if you want to come by' and four people stopped by," she says.

Turning serious, the ebullient Ramundt adds, "I have realized there is one problem, one very serious problem, with all this.

"Now that everybody is getting to know everyone else, I'm going to have to comb my hair when I go to the grocery store."

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