A grassy land bridge running across Western Boulevard. An urban food forest, a city farm, a community garden. The site of the next big national music festival a la Bonnaroo or Coachella.
Raleigh residents are thinking big for the future of the Dix Park property, and Neighborland is their digital dream catcher. Since it went live last September, more than 6,500 people have logged thousands of hours on the website, sharing insights and ideas for the park, voting on their favorites, and engaging in discussions that will inform the Dix Park Master Plan. After landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh and his team finish the design proposal next spring, the plan will go before Raleigh’s City Council for a vote.
“Dix is a dream project and a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the city of Raleigh,” says Dan Parham, Neighborland’s CEO who co-founded the program—a civic tool that allows residents to plan for community projects openly and collaboratively—with his brother, Tee, and urban planner Candy Chang, in New Orleans in 2010. “The dream when we started the company was that we would be able to work on the next great American park, with a team whose philosophy was ‘a park for everyone.’”
Parham’s path to that dream coming true, from video art major at UNC Chapel Hill to tech CEO, was a winding one that led the North Carolina native, 43, to New York City, southeast Asia, New Orleans, Silicon Valley and, finally, back to Raleigh, his home since October. A summer in Italy studying the public square during college sparked an interest in urban planning but, Parham says, he “got distracted by this digital thing emerging in the late ‘90s.”
Following stints as a creative director at AOL and director of user experience at Yahoo, Parham and his wife, Bridget Harrington, the executive director of Innovate Raleigh, embarked on a yearlong trip visiting large Asian cities including Bangkok, Delhi, Haridwar and cities in Indonesia and Japan.
“It was a year of ethnography for me,” Parham recalls. “It was a self-directed year of study.”
When he returned to the U.S., Parham reconnected with his friend, Chang, who was living in New Orleans and working on rebuilding the city five years after Hurricane Katrina. Chang wanted to get New Orleans residents who hadn’t traditionally been part of the city planning process engaged in helping to shape future development. The earliest prototype of Neighborland was what Parham calls “a sticker bombing campaign,” where they met residents in public spaces and got them to write changes they wanted to see on vinyl cling stickers.
Though New Orleans residents were skeptical that any tangible changes would come of the humble stickers bearing their dreams, they embraced the project anyhow. Slowly but surely, via partnerships with residents, civic organizations, nonprofits and government officials, pipe dreams became realities: a night market popped up on St. Claude, a main street; the city got more bike lanes and permits for food trucks; eventually, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority invested nearly $100 million in new streetcar lines in order to reach more travelers and spur economic development.
“That’s the fun thing about cities,” Parham says. “They’re very hard to influence and change, but when you do, the scale is significant and it has real impact on peoples’ lives and the things they care about.”
While all this change in the Big Easy was occurring, Parham was busy developing technology that replicated digitally what the stickers were doing on the ground. After securing a small investment led by True Ventures, Parham moved the company to San Francisco in 2012 to scale the product nationally. Fast forward to 2018, and Neighborland’s team has written more than a million lines of code and supported more than 200 projects, including a billion dollar capital improvement project in Mesa, Arizona, the redevelopment of the 65-acre Turner Field site in Atlanta, and the Transbay Terminal public realm plan with San Francisco Planning.
“Our mission is to empower people to shape the development of their communities,” Parham says. “If you look outside and your neighborhood is perfect, Neighborland is probably not that valuable of a tool for you. It’s a tool for people to identify challenges and opportunities in their community and connect with others around how to actually make it happen.”
Neighborland, now based in Boulder, Colorado, works by licensing its software for a monthly fee to government agencies and other civic organizations that want to listen to stakeholders at scale, without having to deal with third-party advertisers or worry about users’ privacy. The project host can publish and update content, create maps, integrate engagement online and off, accept donations, run surveys, collect feedback on proposed scenarios and generate reports.
For Dix, popular proposals include multi-modal transportation and connectivity, a museum celebrating African American culture and explaining the property’s historical use as a plantation, preserving green and open spaces, creating gathering and performance spaces, the land bridge, water features, a kids’ playground, running trails, public art and more. City parks staffers monitor the website daily and the park’s designers will weigh the public’s ideas with any constraints in creating the Master Plan. In terms of engineering feasibility, Parham explains, very little is off the table; what Dix Park will look like in the future will come down to matters of cost and political will.
Since returning to North Carolina, Parham says he’s enjoying his dual role as a tech CEO and ordinary resident of Raleigh, father of a 3-year-old who’s sharing ideas for a park his family will enjoy through the same channels as everyone else.
“It’s such a joy to be hands-on in the process, attending the meetings, participating on the website,” Parham says. “For the vast majority of [Neighborland’s projects] I’m not participating directly but this really keeps me in touch with the software, seeing what I like about it and what could be better, observing the behavior of the product. From a business perspective, it’s been incredibly meaningful and on the personal level, it’s important to be rooted and committed to a place. If I can play a small role in helping make Raleigh a sustainable, successful, remarkable place, I can’t imagine anything more important to be working on.”