How we are getting to know our next door neighbours thanks to new technology
An app designed to create happier neighbourhoods is proving a lifeline for everyone from blind runners to young mothers and for residents of all ages and backgrounds in Northern Ireland
Increasingly, it seems, individuals living within communities are becoming more and more disconnected. Whereas our grandmothers and grandfathers told tales of togetherness - of nipping next door for some sugar, of whiling away the hours on the stoop with Mr and Mrs So-And-So - nowadays, as the statistics sadly confirm, fewer and fewer of us even know our neighbours' names.
Now, thankfully, a website and app designed to link up communities and promote social inclusion is to be rolled out across Northern Ireland, thanks to the efforts of community relations manager Paul Smyth and a team of concerned citizens from Belleek to Bangor.
"Nextdoor is a new kind of social network, which originated in California, that neighbours can use to buy, sell or give stuff away, seek out referrals for builders, plumbers, child minders and the like, and to discuss local issues and organise groups and events in their community," explains Paul, the city launcher of Nextdoor in Belfast.
"It is based on private and secure networks - neighbours need to be verified to join - and can be accessed online or through an app on your smartphone."
Paul (53), who has been involved with Peace People for many years and in 1999 set up the youth-focused charity Public Achievement, spearheaded the first Northern Ireland Nextdoor network in his native Ballynafeigh area of south Belfast last year. It currently has 300 members.
Working in tandem with Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia, a San Francisco-based social entrepreneur and like-minded individuals across the UK, Smyth hopes to emulate the success of Nextdoor in the US, where 65% of communities use it daily.
"In co-founding Nextdoor, Tolia started out with a simple idea that many of us simply don't know our neighbours," he says. "Most of us would like to feel more connected to the communities in which we live and Nextdoor helps to build connections, stronger and safer neighbourhoods."
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Having trialled Nextdoor in 26 communities here since July, Paul has plenty of good news stories to tell about the positive effects it has had on parents, children, the elderly and those living with disabilities.
"I recently had a discussion with a young Palestinian family who are living on my street," he says.
"I have always smiled and waved at them, but hadn't had a conversation. I asked how long they had been living in the area and they told me two years. I was shocked that they had been here for so long, but I think we are all guilty of not reaching out to neighbours.
"One of the things that I really like about Nextdoor is how virtual connections turn into real world connections. It is the everyday small stuff that makes it worth using, and I already feel more connected to my community."
One of Paul's neighbours, Joe Kenny, says that Nextdoor has already become "essential" to him as a means of keeping fit. Born with glaucoma, the 38-year-old from Newry went blind aged five. Keen to get back running after a period of inactivity, Joe inquired if any of his neighbours would like to pound the Belfast streets as his guide.
"I put out a call through the app and was pleasantly surprised with the response," he says. "I thought I might get one person interested, but there were plenty, and in the end I connected with a girl named Dearbhla Murphy, who lived on the next street, and she was more than happy to guide me. I've been out running a lot since then, which is great."
Meanwhile, his partner Louise has also made solid use of Nextdoor. Joe says: "We had a baby boy, Oisin, several weeks ago and Louise put out a post inquiring about baby and toddler groups nearby, and again the response was brilliant. It's amazing to experience that kind of support from people who are otherwise complete strangers.
"Nextdoor allows you to discover each other's interests, find out what your neighbours are into. Low and behold, you discover that you have things in common with people that you would never have imagined connecting with otherwise."
From a usability point of view, Joe is also full of praise for Nextdoor. He relies on screen reading software to access information contained within apps on his smartphone but reveals that "not all apps are designed to accommodate screen reading, whereas the Nextdoor app is very user-friendly for the sight impaired population".
Brid Ruddy is chairperson of the College Park Avenue Residents' Association in south Belfast. Living and working in the heart of the Holylands is challenging, but she has utilised Nextdoor to bridge the gap between residents, students, young professionals and economic migrants coexisting in the often volatile Queen's Quarter.
"In 2016, it's a very unstable community indeed," she says. "Landlords offer 10,000 bed spaces in our area for a transient community and now there are only 150 long-term residents left. This, in turn, has created over-parking, noise and rubbish pollution and a totally fragmented community.
"Thankfully, most of my neighbours have signed up for Nextdoor and I think it has deepened and enhanced our communication, as well as assisted in residents finding their lost cats and sorting me out with a new plumber.
"People move into our area without knowing a soul and they could remain that way for the duration of their stay. Now they can connect through Nextdoor to find out about local facilities and at least get to know what their neighbours look like."
Elsewhere in Belfast the dividing lines between communities are much more prominent.
In the north of the city, where the majority of peace walls were erected during the Troubles, neighbouring streets can seem like a world apart.
The age-old icy relationships are thawing, but Romanian migrant Iulia Picu believes more can be done.
Iulia relocated to north Belfast from Romania in 2014 after previously volunteering with the Corrymeela Community and Tides training and consultancy agency, an "intense and enriching" experience that eventually led Iulia to consider Northern Ireland as a permanent base after deciding to leave her homeland due to "lack of opportunities".
"We left everyone at home puzzled and worried, to say the least," she says.
"All of our acquaintances agreed that it was a crazy move. There we were, just the two of us, a Romanian mother and a paperless Palestinian father of a two-year-old toddler (Iosif) and a five-month-old boy (Iacob), diving into the unknown of a still fragile society. No job, no house, no promise.
"We felt like we were jumping out of an airplane, excited but fearful. Our friends just scratched their heads and waved goodbye."
It took time to settle, assimilate and ultimately understand their new environment, "a mainly Catholic community surrounded by Protestant flags", but Iulia now enjoys "learning new steps of this tango routine everyday. People are friendly and intrigued by us and we feel safe here".
Thankfully, racism has not been an issue for the Picus personally, but it is something that Iulia sees symbolised and enacted in her community, and she hopes that Nextdoor will help to raise awareness, heal wounds and forge lasting bonds between residents of all cultures. "There were lessons to be learnt," she says. "There are cold showers and warm hugs. The key is resilience.
"My Nextdoor neighbourhood is still in the formation stage, it only launched a couple of weeks ago, but people are becoming more confident to share, inquire and make it their own. I'm delighted to see how they welcome each other when new members sign up. I hope that it becomes an engine for community action towards change and a voice for those not invited to the dialogue table."
The irony that a social network is being used to bring individuals increasingly disconnected by technology together is not lost on any of the Nextdoor leaders interviewed.
Iulia acknowledges that "people would rather click on a photo than shake a hand", but believes that there are "gifts to be found in shared vulnerability". Once individuals sign up to the social network they become part of a virtual neighbourhood as well as a physical one, where they can share urgent information, recommendations, opportunities.
As the group becomes more cohesive, people create out of the new acquired togetherness. Meetings are planned, events opened up, beneficial projects brought to life. Most importantly, a sense of real, active community can be achieved.
"There is a lot of evidence to suggest that people have become more disconnected from their communities all over the developed world," Paul adds.
"People meet and converse less often. Undoubtedly television, the internet and the kind of busy lives we lead have all contributed to this phenomenon.
"Our history of conflict in Northern Ireland, and even the recent Brexit vote and debate, have contributed to a deeper malaise.
"But we know that we are profoundly social animals and that we need contact with others to be healthy and to thrive, and, intriguingly, Nextdoor has grown much faster in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK.
"I feel that this is because we yearn for stronger, more connected communities. It is part of our process of healing and building a better and shared society."
Those interested in signing up to Nextdoor can do so by visiting Nextdoor.co.uk.
Once verified, members are permitted to begin inviting others to join and take part in group discussions, event management and informal conversations. The Android or iOS app is available to download from the App Store, and most areas of Northern Ireland are already mapped out.
Paul encourages people of all ages, backgrounds, beliefs and abilities to take the reigns and make Nextdoor a positive, proactive part of their community, however remote.
"If maps aren't drawn out for your area, you can draw a map of your own neighbourhood and then start inviting others to join by sending an email," he says.
"One of the lovely features of Nextdoor is that you can also send postcards to neighbours with an invitation code.
"These are posted from London, and you just click on the address to invite the neighbour. You can even print out flyers to put up in local shops and community centres.
"The uses for Nextdoor are endless."
Visit nextdoor.co.uk for more details