Cleaning up the dirty city
March 5, 2006 1:32 PM   Subscribe

Why are some cities dirtier than others? What tactics can a dirty city learn from clean cities, to keep their streets free of litter?

I'm sure there are many obvious factors for why one city is dirtier than another -- infrequent street cleaning, uncovered trash cans left out in windy conditions (so the trash blows everywhere), and of course litterbugs with no pride in their neighborhood. I'm not looking for fault, as much as I'm seeking remedies.

Are there case studies of dirty cities successfully cleaning up their act (and perhaps, shedding a dirty reputation in the process)? What comprehensive strategies have worked to improve the cleanliness of densely populated city streets?
posted by edverb to Society & Culture (14 answers total)
Philadelphia was the dirtiest city I ever lived in. Of course, it was also voted the rudest city in the US, so what does that tell you?
posted by 45moore45 at 1:45 PM on March 5, 2006

ownership ... either literal or symbolic ... people who feel they have no stake in their surroundings, who think they're trapped in a place they don't want to be, aren't going to treat where they live with any respect
posted by pyramid termite at 1:54 PM on March 5, 2006

In some cases it's more visible filth is the result of higher density: lots of people in a small space leave more visible residue, although the actual per-person trash output could be (and in the case of New York City, is often) lower than in the suburbs or even the countryside.

The other factor is how trash pick-up is handled. New York City, for example, does not have strict laws about how garbage cans are stored. In some places, cans are stored in large, lidded, heavy outdoor boxes. In NYC's case, they don't have to be, so they are often easy to knock over, blow over, or break in to (by can-hunters, cats, dogs, rats, or other mischief-makers), and bags that have been torn open are then more likely to have garbage spread everywhere. Also, the lack of alleys between buildings is a contributing factor: it means garbage cans are less likely to be stored behind a building or off the street, out of sight and out of harm's way.

In the case of NYC subways, their filth is due to four main factors: trash-dropping riders, too few garbage cans, too rare garbage pickup, and lazy MTA workers who drag punctured bags across the platforms, up stairs, across more floors, all the while uncaring of the liquids and grime being spread like dirt-catching glue.

But the "stake in surroundings" idea is also true here. Whenever I see people intentionally just let trash drop—you can tell when it's intentional—they almost always strike me as slovenly in other ways or obnoxious. It's a type.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:24 PM on March 5, 2006

Yeah, what pyramid termite said. Don't discount the impact that professional sports teams can have on this. When they perform well the citizens all feel better about the community as a whole. The inverse may be true.

Simply put, civic pride.
posted by geekyguy at 2:42 PM on March 5, 2006

I hear that Singapore is very clean. I think the penalties for littering have something to do with it . . .
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:48 PM on March 5, 2006

I just heard a lecture yesterday given by Simon Atkinson that sourced the problem as lack of ownership -- as pyramid termite mentions. And he blames that, basically, on the automobile. "We have killed streets ... we must tame the car." Then he cited a multitide of examples -- areas in Boston, St. Louis, Dublin, etc. -- that were once congested with auto traffic and devoid of desireable housings/businesses ... and with an effort to make the streets pedestrian-friendly these same places have a whole new vitality.

And in keeping with the question, "what creates a sense of ownership," I am reminded of another lecture given by Larry Speck in which he discussed 8 Elements that contribute to environment: (from my notes, loosely paraphrasing Speck)

1. convenience – You can do what you want when you want to. If you are missing cheese for dinner, this shouldn’t be a 40 minute drive to HEB and back. If you want a book. Or a video. Or sex. The brothel should be located in quick proximity. WHY DO WE MAKE HOUR-LONG COMMUTES? The difficulty of having a bifurcated life – you can’t be in two places if issues come up during your day. This life isn’t convenient. Baby carriage up a flight of stairs? Tat’s in-con-ven-i-ent. And much of this works at a subliminal level. Your annoyances can be solved at the physical level
2. accommodation of activity – Humans by nature want to have some contact with other humans – we might not want to be actively engaged, but we want to be in the presence of people doing things. A park. People watching. Casual everyday activities. Shopping events. Arts events. Sports. Movies. Restaurants. We need activity to feel alive. A RANGE OF ACCOMMODATING ACTIVITIES
3. a richness in the variety of people - If you are in homogeneous environment, then you have little freedom to b-ur-self. If you live in a neighborhood of 70+yr-old fogies, then you know, you can’t be big pimpin. Or if you live where everyone is the same ethnicity, ya’ll crackers, how can one be a legit wigger?
4. a sense of human presence-- This isn’t exactly related to activity noted above. You just want to visibly note people have been there before. Historic buildings. Bits of craftsmanship. You can see them hands. Or landscaping. Someone planted that money tree! Someone mowed that grass! YEAH! SOME DOG TOOK A SHIT ON THAT LAWN!!!
5. a personal or human scale - There needs to be people-sized places and forms that relate to the size of our body. This is a failure of much architecture – things got so god damn big and BOMBASTIC (like St. Peter’s in Rome) – but St. Peter’s also has ornaments and paintings that bring it back to our scale. This is necessary in an urban environment
6. a variety of visual experience concurrent with harmony and continuity - This is tricky, Fool. You don’t want everything to be the same shape/color/height/scale. This is deathly boring. Remember cruisin’ the tenements in Baltimore? That Gubment housing? The Projects. Yeah that sucked. You want variety. It’s the salt. Pass the paprika. That is the spice of life.
7. freedom from intrusion or distraction nevermind this floozy logic somewhat contradicts earlier points – here we are talking distraction by noisy, fumy automobiles. "Gas-guzzlers," if you will. So you’re walking on Guady and talking to some Pi Phi coquette and then this bus goes by. It’s like WHOoAAAAHhasdfaserDSFASFDSD. And she says, “Huh?” Then you are forced to use sign language. The Shocker goes over much better in spoken word. Or even worse: The weather. There’s less interaction amongst people in September heat – unless there are places of shade and walkways to get out of the rain – prevent the intrusion of inclimate weather.
8. periodic natural relief - We need something as humans that is only satisfied by natural vegetation. Grass. Shrubs. Trimmed bush. Trees.

Ok, if you keep in mind those 8 items you will do good. Otherwise you create a dull, inhumane environment.

So what you take from that is that a bad environment, or a lack of personality that is not designed with the intent of personal interaction, results in a dull, dirty city.
posted by fourstar at 2:58 PM on March 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is something I always wonder. I live in an extremely poor, predominantly black area of Philadelphia (29th and Girard). All along Girard and north of it is filthy. The street is covered in trash, and people routinely just toss their garbage at their feet when they're done. My front stoop is always piled high with trash tossed onto it.

Yet a block south of this intersection and throughout those neighborhoods (where the economic situation improves suddenly) the streets are spotless.

I'm leaning toward what pyramid termite said.
posted by deafmute at 4:24 PM on March 5, 2006

Nothing more than an interesting anecdote:

Eleven years ago I spent a few months in Asia, first starting in Thailand for a few weeks, and the rest in India.

When I first arrived in Bangkok, it seemed hectic and dirty.

When I left India to head back to the US, my flight required me to to spend a couple of days in Bangkok. After three months in India, I found Bangkok tranquil and clean.

I guess what is clean/dirty is all relative to what you're used to.
posted by ShooBoo at 6:52 PM on March 5, 2006

Definitely what everyone else has said, the degree of ownership, plus in many US cities at least, a decline of communal spirit.

Anecdote, GF a teacher, admonished a high school student for littering in class. Student replied "Miss, they have custodians to sweep up" She wouldn't let the class leave until they cleaned up. They were actually astonished to think that this was their responsibility.

Anecdote 2
I once overheard in my neighborhood (Washington Heights) a young man say that the neighborhood is so dirty because the city doesn't care about minorities, etc., etc.

I replied "maybe that is true (probably is) but I guarantee you that if you stand on a street corner on Park Avenue in the Upper East side and wait for a person to just drop crap on the street instead putting it in a trash can you're in for a long day. Here, you have to wait about two minutes."

He was astonished.

Anecdote 3
I went on a geology field trip for a local college, a middle class young geology student dropped a candy wrapper in this park on Long Island where we were hearing a lecture. Lecturer stopped and admonished him. Young man thought he was joking. He asked "You're serious?" when lecturer told him how piggy it was to just drop his trash.

it is the throw away culture.
posted by xetere at 7:57 PM on March 5, 2006

Don't have an answer, just a couple comments:

Kirth, I did not find Singapore to be an especially clean city. But as xetere Anecdote 2 indicates, where you're observing can make a lot of difference.
posted by Rash at 8:58 PM on March 5, 2006

Anecdote from my neighborhood: I see people out sweeping their walks and cleaning up in front of their houses all the time, but there is almost always trash on the street. After a while I figured out that every time we put the trash out a group of homeless people go around digging through the trash for recyclables, and they leave half of it on the ground to blow around all night. Even more interestingly, when there were both trash and recycling containers out (as opposed to just trash), they left the trash alone and grabbed the bottles straight from the recycling bin. So everytime someone starts recycling the street gets a little cleaner. I have actually observed this happening as people move in and out. Now if we could just get the city to add recycling containers next to the street corner trash cans...
posted by cali at 10:19 PM on March 5, 2006

The problem is mainly ownership -- you don't drop garbage on your own land. People who own nothing figure the state of the land, including the garbage on it, is not their problem. But it's also attitude -- if it's not cool to use the trash can and it is cool to nonchalantly drop your trash where you stand, people desperate for acceptance will litter even if they know it's stupid. And it's a problem with the circumstances of youth -- older people are more likely to be indoors, eating proper meals, and putting garbage in the household garbage can, not standing around outside dropping wrappers, bottles, and cans from snacks and soft drinks.

The solution may be to get people to feel like they own the block. To get cool, young people to feel like they own the block. (But not to give them an "I own this block and I will kill you if you trespass on it" feeling of ownership.)

Your strategy will depend on who lives near you, but you might try something like this: get corporate donations of good prizes (sports equipment, music, field trips, etc.) that would be given in a lottery to the kids who live on the cleanest block as determined by... the local trash collectors? A group of kids (scouts? gangsters?) doing a weekly walk-around? Parents? You?

Let the local kids know the inspections are coming on day X, followed by prizes given out on day Y. Maybe go out to the worst places with clean-up crews, supply them with gloves, brooms, shovels, and bags, and teach them how not to get hurt by stuff.

Say you did it every week (though maybe that's too often). Every kid in school whose legal residence is on the winning block gets a chance for that week's prizes. Basketballs, baseballs, baseball gloves, gift certificates for CDs or clothes, stuff like that, whatever you can squeeze out of local businesses in exchange for their names repeated on handouts, posters, etc. Do it often enough that kids don't forget about it between drawings and always have a little incentive to keep their own block clean, but don't do it so often that the prizes are watered down, the sponsors get donation fatiigue, and the kids just get tired. Every month? Every season?

In any case, combine all that with making sure the city provides proper trash receptacles and collection. That is, make the city take proper ownership of the trash problem, too. Read local ordinances to make sure you know what is required of the city, then make sure they are fulfilling their requirements. If empty lots have to be cleaned up, make them clean up the empty lots. You might also take pictures of the worst places and show them to someone in city hall who would be embarrassed by such pictures.
posted by pracowity at 3:44 AM on March 6, 2006

it is the throw away [sub]culture.

My part of the culture does not exhibit this trait.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:03 AM on March 6, 2006

Trash begets trash. I've seen various ends of the spectrum. An interesting thing Milwaukee has been doing in the business district is to hire people that clean up trash from the sidewalks. These aren't city workers but people that the downtown business association hires to keep the place looking nice. They then benefit from having a more inviting place to encourage customers.

I've seen similar things in Madrid where the shop owners and apartment porteros actually go out and mop the sidewalk every few days to get rid of the ubiquitous dog caca and also to make it less trashy. The businesses should be more responsible than the city for doing this IMHO.
posted by JJ86 at 6:13 AM on March 6, 2006

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