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Tell the Mayor to Clean the Streets

When Mayor Jim Kenney was candidate Jim Kenney, he pledged to reinstate biweekly street cleaning in Philadelphia. More than two years into his term, he’s still equivocating on the idea.

Let the Mayor know if you want more regular street cleaning where it matters: In neighborhoods, where most of us live.

Email Mayor Kenney here.

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Clean Up, Philly

Philly is the biggest city in the nation with no street cleaning. Instead we have a litter survey. Herein, some actionable ideas

Philly is the biggest city in the nation with no street cleaning. Instead we have a litter survey. Herein, some actionable ideas

Andrew Freedman, a 30-year resident of Washington West, has developed a habit lately that is a consequence of living in Philadelphia. He walks his dog a couple times a day, and brings with him a bag to pick up the poop; but now, he also brings extra plastic bags so that he can pick up the trash he finds strewn on the sidewalk. Sometimes, Freedman fills a whole bag between his house and the dog park a few blocks away—and then, on the way home, fills it up again.

“We take a lot of satisfaction in seeing the neighborhood clean,” says Freedman, who is president of the Seger Park Dog Owners Association. “This is instant satisfaction. You pick it up; it’s clean.”

Freedman was inspired by a movement started in Sweden called “plogging” that combines jogging with litter removal and has turned into a worldwide sensation. Stopping a run to pick up trash every couple feet seems, well, not run-like. But Freedman figured dog-walking was a good fit. He has now adapted the idea into a project that rewards dog walkers with a chance to win gift cards if they send a picture that shows they combined scooping poop with scooping trash.

This is what it has come to in Philly: #DogPlogging.

“There’s no way you can data your way out of needing to do the cleaning,” says Ali Perelman, Philly 3.0’s executive director and a board member of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association, which pays for its own sidewalk sweeping. “We need street cleaning like other cities.”

Kudos to Freedman, for doing his part—and to all the other resident trash collectors and neighborhood associations that are tackling the city’s embarrassing trash problem. Because face it: We are filthy. We are a city where people deliberately throw fast food bags out their car windows; dump trash bags and household appliances onto empty lots; sweep curb trash into gutters—and look the other way. We are a city bad at throwing things out. And yes, we should just be better at it.

But also: Philadelphia remains the biggest city in America without regular street cleaning in the neighborhoods where most Philadelphians live. This is despite Mayor Kenney’s campaign promise to bring back every other week street sweeps that were cancelled during the recession. Instead, the Mayor has said he’s waiting for “neighborhood buy-in”—i.e., for people to not freak out about moving their cars. That’s what he seemed to get last fall, when the city’s own residential satisfaction survey found that Philadelphians cared more about clean streets than about, you guessed it, parking.

Custom Halo

Almost a year later, there is still no timeline on street cleaning. Instead, we have surveying. The Mayor’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, a collaboration of city departments, private businesses and residents, launched its annual Litter Index Survey this week, sending trained city workers to every street in the city to gauge a neighborhood’s litter level on a scale from 1 to 4, as devised by Keep America Beautiful. The surveying will run until the end of the year and, according to Litter Index Coordinator Haley Jordan, inform what measures the city will take to clean up its streets.

Last year’s survey was publicly released in February, with an interactive map that allows you to see how your neighborhood measures up—or, at least, measured up on those days when the survey was taken. It was, Jordan says, a baseline—a baseline, of course, from a time when there was no semi-weekly citywide street cleaning. The results were stark and not surprising: The most trash-filled neighborhoods in the city—vast swaths of North Philly and West Philly—are also areas that tend to have the highest levels of poverty, most abandoned lots, and least well-financed civic and business associations that can pick up where the city doesn’t.

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At the same time, the city’s GovLab launched a series of behavioral science pilot studies around the placement and number of trash cans outside convenience stores, near schools, in parks, which will be used to “develop a strategy for public waste receptacles,” Jordan says, which may include a public/private partnership to install and maintain trash bins. That work is still ongoing.

In the months since, the city has worked with two neighborhoods—in Southwest Philly and Kensington—to create customized action plans for cleaning up their trash. (These areas were not necessarily the dirtiest, but were the most ready to take on the work, Jordan says.) The plans will be released in September, and may include a combination of education, trash receptacles, enforcement of litter laws, and even cleaning, along with milestones to mark if the plans are a success. The theory is that every neighborhood has its own concerns—some have vacant lots that attract dumping; others have markets that contribute to package waste—so each needs their own solution.

Philly could do what the Mayor initiated in Albuquerque, New Mexico, putting the homeless to work cleaning up litter, as a way of also bringing them in for social services. Or we could pay residents to bag up litter, as in Curitiba, Brazil, where residents can exchange bags of trash for bags of food.

That is undoubtedly true when it comes to creating the litter. As far as picking it up, there is one universal solution that is pretty clear: Citywide street and sidewalk sweeping works. That was evident in February, after 2 million people lined the streets for the Super Bowl Parade; by the time the sweepers and street cleaners had come through later, Broad Street virtually gleamed. And Jordan notes that in Kensington and Southwest Philly, the streets are already getting cleaner because of the work the city has been doing with the community—including, she says, cleaning of dumped trash and enforcement of trash regulations from the Streets Department.

“There’s no way you can data your way out of needing to do the cleaning,” says Ali Perelman, Philly 3.0’s executive director and a board member of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association, which pays for its own sidewalk sweeping. “We need street cleaning like other cities.”

Sidewalk sweeping and street cleaning are two separate things. The Streets Department has no plans yet to resume street cleaning. And sidewalk sweeping is something that the city has long left to civic groups, most notably the Center City District, which has kept Philly’s downtown relatively spotless for decades. Similar projects have cropped up in neighborhoods around town—mainly those, like Bella Vista, where enough residents have the means to contribute. They are valiant efforts, part of being a citizen of this city; they do not, however, represent a city taking responsibility for its citizens.

“It’s never going to be sufficient this way,” notes Perelman. “Cleaning has to be a municipal function.”

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That could look a lot of different ways—starting, of course, with every other week street cleaning. The city could more heartily enforce existing litter laws, or even make them stronger. Singapore, roundly considered one of the cleanest cities on earth, punishes litterers with a fine, and often a sentence of community service that usually involves picking up trash. That does not seem unreasonable.

Philly could do what the Mayor initiated in Albuquerque, New Mexico, offering day work of helping clean litter to people living on the street, as a way of also bringing them in for social services. Or, we could take advantage of programs like Ready, Willing & Able, which trains the recently incarcerated in job and life skills through (among other things) work cleaning the streets—not because that’s the only work they deserve, but because it’s a pathway to stability.

We could pay residents to bag up litter, as they (effectively) do in Curitiba, Brazil, where residents can exchange bags of trash for bags of food—one reason the South American city is among the greenest in the world. In Bella Vista, Perelman says it costs around $20,000 a year for the trash pickup—which (even given economies of scale) could be a lot if spread citywide. But the city could spend a fraction of that to initiate something like we have for recycling, where residents get points each time they put out their bin, redeemable for coupons and discounts at area businesses.

We could put it on Councilmembers to take charge of the litter situation in their districts, applying some of that Councilmanic prerogative to deploying sidewalk sweepers a couple times a month in their neighborhoods.

And then there is all of us: We could be heroes of our own neighborhoods, like Angela Val in Point Breeze, or Dave Brindley of Not in Philly—or Freedman, of the dogplogging. “We are engaging people in keeping their blocks clean,” says Jordan. “Some of this has to start there.”

Photo: kryn13 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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