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Learn practical tips and guidance for conducting a neighborhood cleanup program.

 

Image of young men and women cleaning up a park.

 
  • What is a neighborhood cleanup program?

  • Why conduct a neighborhood cleanup program?

  • Who should be involved in a neighborhood cleanup program?

  • When should you conduct a neighborhood cleanup program?

  • How do you conduct a neighborhood cleanup program?

 

In the 1960s, I taught in an alternative school in a large city. One day, my co-teacher and I took our class of seventh, eighth, and ninth graders to a park that ran along a creek to teach an ecology lesson. After the lesson, we had lunch in the park before going back to school. As we started our walk, an eighth grader named Kyle, who had just finished the soda his mother had packed for him, flung the empty bottle off a bridge into the creek.

When the other teacher and I remarked that this was perhaps not an eco-friendly act, and out of keeping with the lesson we had just had, his reply was, "Have you seen my neighborhood? There’s trash everywhere! No one cares about my neighborhood. Why should I care about anyplace else?"

When a neighborhood is awash in trash and litter, when streets and surfaces are dirty and grimy, when graffiti are splattered on every blank wall, the streets can become symbols of the hopelessness of residents' situations, and of the impossibility of improving their lives. Even in more affluent neighborhoods, an abundance of refuse can lower residents' expectations, and work against community economic and social development.

This section is about an activity that may seem of relatively little consequence: getting together a group to clean up a neighborhood on a given day or two. In fact, a neighborhood cleanup can have a serious positive impact, particularly on a low-income neighborhood whose residents don't see anything better in their future. Both the act of engaging in the cleanup and its results can change a neighborhood's culture and self-image, and lead residents to view themselves in a different light.

What is a neighborhood cleanup program?

Some definitions before we begin:

Trash, as the term is used in this section, refers to relatively small pieces of waste that doesn't rot over the short term: paper, glass, cloth, wood, metal, plastic, etc. Most of it is usually made up of broken items – toys or electronics, for instance, or small pieces of furniture – or packaging, bottles, and similar items that are thrown away on the street.

Garbage, on the other hand, is composed of items that do rot quickly or come in liquid form: discarded food, chemical cleaners, oil, dead animals, human and animal excrement, medical waste, etc.

Bulky waste is composed of items such as appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, TV sets), tires, construction debris, concrete, large branches and logs, and other articles that are generally too large or heavy to be hauled away by waste disposal services.

Recyclables are items that the municipality accepts for recycling. In most cases, a recycler either buys this material or hauls it away for free. Among the things that may be recycled in a given community are plastics, glass, paper, metals, and used motor oil. Each community has different standards, depending upon the contracts it has made with a recycler. In a neighborhood cleanup, recyclables may be sorted out by householders or separated from trash and bulky waste by volunteers.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between a neighborhood cleanup and a neighborhood cleanup program. A neighborhood cleanup is a one-time event. A neighborhood cleanup program is an ongoing project that assumes that effort will be maintained, even if only once a year. Such a program, as we will see later in this section, takes coordination, structure, and a neighborhood commitment to keeping trash and other waste, graffiti, and neighborhood decay under control.

A neighborhood cleanup is just what it sounds like: residents band together to clean up all or part of their neighborhood. The effort may be led by the community, by an organized neighborhood association or council, by a grass roots neighborhood group, or by one or more concerned individuals. There are actually three kinds of neighborhood cleanups, any or all of which can be included in a single event:

  • Public space cleanup. Neighborhood volunteers, usually with simple equipment – brooms, shovels, gloves, trash bags – spend some or all of a day cleaning up part or all of a neighborhood.
  • Household cleanup. On a designated day or week, neighborhood volunteers or the municipality will (usually at no cost to the household) pick up items too large for regular waste disposal or otherwise difficult to get rid of. Residents simply leave the items waiting to be picked up at the edge of the road at an appointed date and time.
  • Community-assisted cleanup. If one of the spots most in need of a cleanup is on private property – a vacant lot in which the owner or others have dumped a large amount of trash and bulky waste, for example – or if there are items, such as abandoned or junked cars, that a neighborhood group simply can't remove, the neighborhood may need help from the larger community. The municipality may be able to provide permits, equipment, and other aids to address the problem.

In many municipalities, the local authorities provide community employees and equipment such as trash compacter trucks, recycling bins, dumpsters, and/or tools to assist in the cleanup. This is especially true where the cleanup is an initiative of the municipality, but may also be an option in other cases. Some communities encourage neighborhood cleanups with an application procedure for this kind of assistance. Eligibility may depend on the level of neighborhood organization, the number of committed volunteers, or the identity of the applicant. (Some communities will only supply manpower and equipment to a registered neighborhood association; others require only a signature of someone who's willing to be responsible.)

Let's take a closer look at the different kinds of neighborhood cleanups.

Public space cleanup

A public space cleanup may start with the municipality. Communities approach this in different ways. In some cases, the municipality will designate a day for the cleanup, and will either be available to pick up the trash and other waste collected, or will supply tools and/or equipment to help with the process. In other cases, the neighborhood can apply for a specific day or weekend; if it's available, the municipality will assist. Aid from the municipality is usually limited to once a year per neighborhood, so that as many neighborhoods as possible can participate.

El Cajon, CA conducts a monthly cleanup, for which the town solicits volunteers to pick up trash, identify graffiti, and clean up in general at a particular place in town.

Where the cleanup is initiated by the neighborhood, there are a number of possibilities. The simplest, of course, is that the neighborhood takes full responsibility on its own. People bring their own tools and garbage bags, drive their own vehicles – pickup trucks are ideal – and use volunteer manpower to handle bulky waste and get it to the landfill or transfer station. If there's a building or heavy equipment contractor among the residents, there may be a dump truck or backhoe available for big jobs, but most neighborhoods make do with hand tools, family vehicles, and volunteer muscle.

A landfill is essentially a dump, but one in which the waste is continuously covered over with earth. Transfer stations exist in communities where landfills don't exist or have been closed. Waste, depending on its nature, is either deposited or recycled at the transfer station, and then transferred to a landfill or recycling facility in another community. Municipalities pay a fee to transfer waste, but are often paid for recyclables.

Many communities will aid in a neighborhood-sponsored cleanup in the same ways as in a municipality-sponsored one. They'll loan tools and/or equipment and operators, or provide special waste pickup for the neighborhood. The event might include a household cleanup as well (see below) or it might be limited to what volunteers can do in public streets and spaces.

Some neighborhood groups – often block or neighborhood associations – are very organized, and are able to muster dozens of volunteers on a regular basis. Others work with a small core group, hoping to attract supporters as they go.

One woman in Los Angeles started small. Andrea Ambrose and her friend John Lobato decided to clean up a trash-strewn block in their neighborhood. On the following weekends, joined by Ambrose's mother, they picked other neighborhood locations. A few people joined them, then a few others. Ambrose and Lobato's spontaneous cleanup turned into LANCUP, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Clean Up Project, with an email list of past and potential volunteers, and a history of cleanups in LA's Silver Lake area. A LANCUP Martin Luther King Day cleanup in 2009 attracted 250 volunteers. In 2015 LA mayor Eric Garcetti launched Clean Streets LA calling the city sanitation bureau to lead the efforts to clean the city neighborhoods. They are distributing 5,000 new trash cans around the city and are cracking down on illegal dumping. Clean Streets LA provides new funding to hire additional Sanitation crews to respond directly to bulky item pickup and reports of illegal dumping. Clean Streets LA partners with nonprofits to provide additional cleanup services including wee, litter and graffiti abatement.

Depending on the number of volunteers and the level of organization, a cleanup can cover an area as small as an intersection or a block, or it might try to encompass a whole city neighborhood. It can also focus on or include a city park or other large public space.

 Volunteers might take on tasks ranging from sweeping streets and sidewalks to picking up and separating trash and recyclables to trimming bushes in a park to hauling bulky waste onto a pickup truck and taking it to the dump. They might paint over graffiti, clean drains, haul away fallen tree branches, or report abandoned vehicles. In the process, they can get to know and bond with their neighbors, learn more about their neighborhood, and accumulate social capital.

Social capital is the mass of good will and obligation that you build by extending good will and fulfilling obligations to others in your sphere. A neighbor might watch your house while you're away, for example, because she knows you volunteer your time to neighborhood causes, or because you took care of her dog while she was on vacation. Even simple daily interaction – a greeting at the bus stop, a nod in the supermarket – serves to build social capital for both parties.

This type of cleanup often ends with a party or meal prepared by other neighborhood volunteers and/or the coordinators. Food and drink may be donated by neighborhood businesses, and the party/meal crew may include elders and others who want to be involved, but aren't capable of the physical labor needed for the cleanup activities.

Household cleanup

A household cleanup may be held as part of a public space cleanup, or may stand on its own. Some household cleanups are the result of a community initiative, and others are neighborhood-initiated. In the first case, the municipality generally designates a day or week for the neighborhood when residents are allowed to put out for disposal waste that isn't normally accepted by the community's trash haulers. This often includes bulky waste, and may also include some or all hazardous waste (paint, solvents, etc.), concrete, glass, used motor oil, and the like.

Municipalities generally have strict rules about what they will and will not take at a landfill or transfer station. Some are able to recycle nearly everything possible, others very little. Some will accept some or all hazardous waste, others none at all. They may suspend some of these rules during a household cleanup, but there are usually still some restrictions on what they will take and how much.

Most communities, for example, require that appliances be emptied of freon (a notorious greenhouse gas that helps to cool refrigerators and air conditioners.) Many will only accept certain materials, hazardous or not: construction debris, large branches and trees, lengths of metal pipe longer than three feet, and concrete are all materials accepted by some communities in neighborhood cleanups and not by others. Many communities limit the amount of bulky and other difficult waste they will take (five yards – 135 cubic feet or nearly five cubic meters – is a common maximum.)

Rules vary greatly from community to community, depending on what it costs them to dispose of various materials. Some communities will take any metal because they can sell it for scrap, whereas others have no market for it, and therefore must pay (by weight) to have it hauled away. The same is true for recyclables and some other items. The limits they set, therefore, depend as much on budget and sorting capacity as on the amount of space or number of trucks available.

A neighborhood-organized household cleanup usually operates similarly to a neighborhood-initiated public space cleanup (and may in fact be part of one, as mentioned above.) Neighborhood volunteers provide information about the cleanup, coordinate and oversee activities, sort household waste into recyclables and trash, and either actually haul it to the dump or transfer station or arrange with the municipality to truck it away on the appropriate days.

Volunteers in this case might help elders and people with disabilities pack up their waste for disposal and get it out to the curb where it can be taken away. They might also cut down broken tree limbs, clean up yards and driveways, and otherwise make it possible for residents with physical difficulties to participate fully in the cleanup.

Community-assisted cleanup

We've already referred to a number of different kinds of community assistance in relation to public space and household cleanups. Here, we're specifically discussing situations where the community itself makes all or part of the cleanup possible. A trash-covered vacant lot or an abandoned building may be not only an eyesore, but also a health hazard, a barrier to neighborhood business, and a magnet for drug use and dealing. If such a neighborhood sore spot is privately owned, residents may need permission from the owner or some official action from the municipality in order to clean it up. The same might be true for abandoned vehicles or the remains of a demolished building that provides an dangerous place for children to play.

Abandoned or junked vehicles can be towed away by the community without much process, and the owner notified after the fact. In the case of a vacant lot, building, or demolition site, however, the municipality may have to contact the owner and go through a process of warnings, sanctions, and impose penalties before anything can be done. Furthermore, whatever is done may have to be done by the municipality itself because of liability issues. The neighborhood may have no recourse but to report the situation and wait for something to happen.

In a situation where a vacant lot or other site poses a real health or safety hazard to the neighborhood and the municipality does nothing about it, social action may be called for. This might start with protests meant to persuade politicians to take action, and escalate into a cleanup as an act of civil disobedience or a lawsuit against the property owner and/or the municipality.

These cleanups may be one-time or annual events, but may also take place much more often, depending on the availability of trash hauling, the enthusiasm of volunteers, and the level of organization of the sponsoring body. Some neighborhoods organize monthly or even weekly cleanups. Large city neighborhoods may have to conduct regular frequent cleanups for maintenance.

Why conduct a neighborhood cleanup program?

  • A neighborhood cleanup program can instill neighborhood pride. A neighborhood that looks good, that's free of trash and clutter, and that allows children to play without fear of being injured by debris or contracting parasites or diseases from rotting waste is one that residents and businesses can be proud of. If they've made the neighborhood that way, they can take pride in themselves and their abilities as well. Furthermore, a cleanup encourages residents to take ownership of the neighborhood and keep it clean and healthy.
  • It can break a cycle of hopelessness and helplessness. In neighborhoods where income is low, crime is a daily concern, and unemployment is common, residents can lose hope if they see no way to change their situation. Once neighborhood volunteers and other residents see how much can be accomplished, even in half a day, with many hands and a minimal level of organization, they may also see that they can address other issues, both in the neighborhood and in their own lives. Children and youth particularly may change their expectations of what's possible as a result of involvement in such an effort.
  • It gives everyone a chance to contribute. No resident is too old, too young, or too physically disabled to help or participate in some way. Children can sweep and pick up litter; frail elders can prepare or distribute food and drink to those doing physical labor. People who are housebound can make phone calls to inform residents of the cleanup and recruit volunteers, or negotiate with the municipality for assistance. No one has to feel left out, and the more volunteers there are, the more they can accomplish.
  • A cleanup program enhances neighborhood quality of life. Living in a clean environment makes life healthier, less stressful, and more pleasant.
  • It can improve the self-image of residents and of the neighborhood as a whole. A neighborhood that smells like garbage or looks like a dump is an undesirable place to live and work. When that neighborhood is cleaned up, its reputation will improve as well as the residents' quality of life.
  • A neighborhood cleanup program can improve neighborhood health. Large amounts of trash and garbage, abandoned buildings and cars, and other waste – some of it hazardous – can become breeding grounds for rodents and insects, cause pollution, and create unsanitary conditions that encourage the development of health problems and diseases. Such an environment also makes it difficult for children to find a safe place to play, and increases stress for everyone who lives in it. Cleaning it up can provide real and immediate health benefits to neighborhood residents, as well as helping them think about the possibility of neighborhood wellness.
  • It can help to "green" the neighborhood. A cleanup program can not only reduce pollution, but – by sorting neighborhood trash and recycling as much as possible – can help to teach residents about recycling and about activities that will reduce the neighborhood's carbon footprint.

"Carbon footprint" refers to how much carbon-based fuel – petroleum products (oil, gasoline, etc.), natural gas, coal, wood – you're responsible for burning. This is important not only because fossil (carbon-based) fuel becomes scarcer with every bit burned, but also because it contributes carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, adding to global warming. Recycling conserves resources and often – though not always – uses less fuel than making a new product from scratch.

  • It makes the neighborhood more attractive to business. Businesses would almost always prefer to set up in neighborhoods that are attractive and well cared for, simply because people are more likely to visit those neighborhoods and residents are more likely to have money to spend. A neighborhood cleanup program can initiate economic development and attract new shops and services for residents.
  • It can serve as a springboard for other neighborhood actions or activities. A neighborhood cleanup program produces a list of volunteers who may be ready to turn out for other activities as well – block parties, advocacy for better services, violence prevention, mentoring, etc. As mentioned above, the realization of what can be accomplished may make residents more willing to address other issues.
  • It can increase the number of relationships and the amount of social capital within the neighborhood. In shared work for a common cause, people get to know one another and form bonds from their experience. Those bonds form the web of social capital that unifies the neighborhood. That web can help create real, long-term change. When a large number of residents know and care about one another, they are more likely to provide mutual aid and assistance, to try to prevent neighborhood violence and crime, and to accept one another's differences. All of that works not only to further strengthen individual relationships, but to make the neighborhood stronger as well.

The University of Arizona in Tucson conducts a student-led neighborhood cleanup each year in neighborhoods surrounding the campus. The cleanup, involving both students and permanent neighborhood residents, helps to connect students to the neighborhoods and to ease relationships among students and city residents, often strained by students occupying residential neighborhoods.

  • A neighborhood cleanup program can encourage the embrace of diversity. If the neighborhood is diverse, and there's a sincere and effective effort to recruit volunteers from all of the different populations of residents, the bonds of social capital will extend across the borders of those populations. Whether the diversity encompasses economics, politics, class, race, ethnicity, culture, age, sexual preference, or all of these, relationships forged by working together can serve to make a diverse neighborhood into one where everyone is valued, and where the neighborhood sees itself as a coherent body, rather than a collection of separate parts.

Who should be involved in a neighborhood cleanup program?

To be successful, a neighborhood cleanup program should be as participatory as possible. That means involving all groups in the neighborhood in planning and carrying it out. You can and should try to recruit volunteers for the cleanup itself from all sectors of the neighborhood. In addition, planning should involve representation from as many of the demographic and population groups in the neighborhood as possible. Groups that might be involved in planning and implementation of a cleanup program include:

  • Any significant racial or ethnic groups, including the majority group. Those largely composed of recent immigrants may be harder to recruit, but persistent effort can often pay off.
  • Youth. Teens, and some children as young as 10 or 11, might be involved in planning, and even very young children can work as volunteers in some capacity for at least a short time.
  • Elders.
  • People with disabilities. These folks may have a perspective on cleanup that takes into account issues of accessibility that others may not have thought about.
  • Faith communities.
  • Property owners, including absentee owners.
  • Renters.
  • Neighborhood business owners and managers.
  • Neighborhood clubs and associations. These often have a level of organization that allows them to mobilize large numbers of volunteers quickly and effectively.
  • Health and human service organizations that serve the neighborhood.
  • School personnel. These folks may be able to help organize the cleanup by sending notices home with children, creating curriculum around the activity, etc.
  • Neighborhood and/or municipal officials. The local city council member, the precinct police captain or fire chief, the municipality's environmental officer – these and many other officials can bring in help from the larger community. They should be involved in any case, both for their own purposes – positive publicity, getting to know people in the neighborhood who can then be helpful to them in other circumstances – and to put the neighborhood at the front of their minds.

When should you conduct a neighborhood cleanup program?

You can start a neighborhood cleanup program at any time, but there are both some general guidelines for timing the cleanup itself, and some specific times when this activity is particularly appropriate. We'll start with the general and move to the specific.

General guidelines for when to conduct a neighborhood cleanup:

Pay attention to the weather

A cleanup scheduled for mid-winter in a cold climate is probably not going to attract many volunteers. Furthermore, it's difficult and messy to find and collect trash and other waste when it's buried under snow. By the same token, a cleanup in mid-summer in a place where the thermometer soars is an invitation to heatstroke.

If you can count on the weather to some extent – if your area has a rainy season, for instance, and it seldom rains at other times – schedule your cleanup(s) when the weather is likely to be nicest. Spring and fall are best in many areas. Try to have a backup day in case of rain, unbearable heat, or some other problematic weather.

Schedule around volunteers' lives

Unless all potential neighborhood volunteers are retired, weekends are probably the best times for cleanups. If there are no major cultural traditions in your neighborhood to prevent it (see the next paragraph), you can schedule a cleanup for Saturday, with Sunday as an alternative date in case of bad weather.

Avoid national and religious holidays, and be aware of various cultural restrictions that volunteers might have. Don't schedule a cleanup on Saturday in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, or on Sunday in a mostly Catholic one. Try not to conflict with most people's vacation schedules as well.

A factory in one New England town always shuts down for the first two weeks of August. Since it's the largest employer in town, many other businesses follow suit, and most residents take their vacations at that time.

Coordinate with the municipality if you can

If the cleanup is initiated by the larger community, or if it can offer tools, equipment, and/or other help, make sure that you schedule your cleanup at the time it specifies, or at a time when it is willing to participate. Make sure as well that the landfill, transfer station, and/or recycling facility can accept the results of your cleanup on the scheduled day or very soon after, so that piles of trash bags or brush won't clutter the streets, waiting to scatter and make your work useless.

Some good times to conduct a neighborhood cleanup program:

  • When open spaces and streets in the neighborhood are covered with waste. If the neighborhood has gotten to the point where dirt and waste are so common that they have become part of the scenery, it's time to take action.
  • When the municipality provides the opportunity. If the municipality has a regular neighborhood cleanup schedule, or offers help to neighborhood groups to organize a cleanup, it's a good time to take advantage of the opportunity. The cleanup will be much easier and probably more effective with the community's help.
  • When waste presents a danger to children or others. Discarded refrigerators with the doors still attached, brush piles that can collapse, demolished buildings, abandoned cars – all of these present appealing places to play, and can also be extremely dangerous. If these kinds of hazards exist in your neighborhood, get rid of them as soon as possible.
  • When waste presents a danger to health. If rats are breeding in a garbage-covered empty lot, if there are chemicals leaching into the soil, if medical waste or used drug needles litter the streets, the health of the neighborhood is at stake. A cleanup will do much more than make the neighborhood look better.
  • When the neighborhood is interested in economic development. A clean neighborhood, as we've discussed, is more likely to attract business.
  • When you want to bring the neighborhood together. A neighborhood cleanup program can involve all the groups in the community, and help to bridge gaps between ethnic populations, age groups, and others.
  • When the neighborhood seems to have lost hope. Both the act of working together and the result of their labor – a cleaner environment – can shift residents' opinion of themselves and of their possibilities.

How do you conduct a neighborhood cleanup program?

A neighborhood cleanup program requires a certain amount of planning and coordination. The larger and more ambitious the cleanup, the more planning and coordination it requires. Neighborhood participation, an absolutely necessary ingredient, can best be gained by involving the neighborhood as much as possible in the planning process. And, as we've mentioned earlier, a neighborhood cleanup program isn't just one cleanup, but an ongoing effort that will ensure further activity and a neighborhood that stays clean and healthy.

Given all that, let's look at the steps you might take to establish both an initial cleanup and a cleanup program.

Recruit or find a core group to begin the effort

Someone has to start the ball rolling. That might be an individual – perhaps the individual reading this section – a group organized specifically for the purpose, or an already-organized neighborhood group, such as a neighborhood association, a club, or a scout troop. It's ideal if the core group mirrors the diversity of the neighborhood, but if that's not possible, it's better to have a non-diverse group to make the first move than to have no one.

Put together a planning group that represents all groups in the neighborhood

If the core group is diverse, this step may not be necessary. If it's not, the first task of the core group should be to reach out to all of the groups listed in the "Who should be involved…?" part of this section and invite them to participate in planning the neighborhood cleanup.

The best approach is always personal. If folks don't know people in a particular group, they can canvass their friends and neighbors for someone who does, or contact a key person within the group in question – the director of an organization, a clergy person, a coach – and ask for help. People are much more likely to respond to a request to participate if it comes from someone they know and trust.

In addition to word of mouth, you can post information in public places, distribute notices to everyone in the neighborhood, (using someone's computer and printer at the cost of a few reams of paper and a couple of toner cartridges), put stories in the local newspaper, and try to place PSAs (public service announcements) on local radio and TV stations.

Assess the neighborhood

Unlike a complete community assessment, this can be a relatively simple procedure of walking or driving around the neighborhood and observing the level of waste, dirt, graffiti, abandoned vehicles, and other cleanup targets in different areas. Members of the planning group could also talk with neighbors about whether a household cleanup is necessary, if this isn't obvious from observation.

Decide what kind of neighborhood cleanup you want to conduct

Your assessment should help you with this step. Depending on the size of the neighborhood, the possibility of help from the municipality, the number of potential volunteers, and the nature and amount of what has to be cleaned, your cleanup might range from a single intersection or a single block to the whole neighborhood. It could be a public space, household, community-assisted cleanup, or all three.

If you're trying to establish a neighborhood cleanup program – i.e., if this cleanup isn't meant to be only a one-time event – it's important to include, if not focus on, a public space cleanup. Volunteers will be out on the street where people can see them, cleaning not just residents' yards or alleys, but the spaces that all neighbors use. That sends a message to the neighborhood that cleanup is everyone's responsibility and benefits everyone as well. Such a message will make recruiting volunteers and organizing future cleanups much easier.

Another issue to consider is how long the cleanup should be. It might range from a half day to two full days. One whole day is probably about right for most neighborhoods, in terms of both what can get done and how much time volunteers are willing to spend. There are, of course, other possibilities such as staging a cleanup of a different limited area every weekend.

Consider your resources

Neighborhood resources generally come in three flavors: money; people (volunteer time); and in-kind contributions (goods and services donated directly to the cleanup). Money may or may not be needed for a neighborhood cleanup. If it is, it's most likely to come from local businesses and banks. It can be used for supplies, equipment, and publicity, among other things, but it's not required in most instances.

People are the most important resource: a true neighborhood cleanup can happen without money, but not without volunteers. Additionally, people bring skills: neighborhood residents might provide first aid and emergency medical help, direct the painting of a mural over graffiti, or drive a piece of heavy equipment that makes the whole cleanup easier. Find out what kinds of human resources exist in the neighborhood, and don't be shy about asking for the use of them for the cleanup program.

In-kind resources can take the place of money in many ways. They can include help from the municipality in the form of equipment, employees, forgiveness of dumping fees, etc. The skills mentioned above can be considered an in-kind resource: residents are donating services they might normally be paid for. Supplies can often be solicited from local businesses – food, drinks, and paper goods from a supermarket or two, trash bags and brooms from the hardware store, paint from the paint store, etc.

It's important to have a clear idea of what resources are available in the course of your planning. The knowledge can help determine the size and character of your cleanup.

Pick an appropriate place, date and time

Remember to pick a date and time that doesn't conflict with holidays or put volunteers out in the worst weather, and that allows for help from the municipality if possible. Ideally, pick a time of year when people would enjoy spending the day outside.

The place you choose should be large enough to accommodate the number of volunteers you intend to recruit and to accept the collected waste (or the dumpsters that it will be stored in) until it can be hauled away. A school parking lot might be a good bet, since the school will be empty on a weekend. The parking lots of office complexes, shopping centers, public buildings, or houses of worship might also serve.

Recruit volunteers

Recruiting volunteers can be difficult if your neighborhood has no tradition of volunteering. Personal contact, once again, is the most effective method. If your planning group is reasonably representative of the neighborhood, the networks of its members should reach just about everyone. As you did for the planning group, put out notices, fliers, PSAs, and newspaper stories to help inform and attract neighborhood residents and other important groups.

For both the planning group and volunteers, if there are many neighborhood residents who are not fluent in the majority language, make sure that any printed or spoken material you put out is in all the languages they speak. That's one important way to let all residents know that they're welcome, and that you've thought about them.

One of the best ways to find volunteers is through the clubs, schools, faith communities, youth groups, sports leagues, and other organized bodies they belong to. Some of these organizations and institutions may adopt the cleanup as an official activity, or use it in other ways (as a fulfillment of a community service requirement for high school students, for example.) You can make presentations to these groups, or establish contact through group leaders.

Emphasize that there are volunteer jobs for everyone, even small children. A four- or five-year-old can't be expected to work for very long, but there are still things they can do, and they'll enjoy themselves and feel that they are part of something grown up and important in the process. For young children, this can be a first lesson in the value of community service, as well as a hands-on demonstration of how improper disposal of waste causes problems for others.

Another important recruitment tactic is making the cleanup fun, and letting people know it. We'll address this further when we discuss planning the event itself.

Organize volunteers

As people volunteer, get their names and contact information, including e-mail if they have it. Make sure everyone knows where they need to be at what time on the day(s) of the cleanup, and what they need to bring. Although it may seem obvious, let people know that they should wear clothes that they don't mind soiling – perhaps permanently – and shoes that are comfortable enough to work in for the length of the cleanup.

Unless the sponsoring organization or the municipality is supplying everything, volunteers might be asked to bring (if they have them):

  • Brooms
  • Work gloves
  • Buckets and sponges
  • Shovels and hoes
  • Rakes
  • Trash bags
  • Cell phones
  • Carts and wheelbarrows
  • Lunch, snacks, and drinks for themselves

In addition, some volunteers may be willing to use their cars or trucks to haul waste or to transport others.

As you sign people up, find out what they can, or are willing to, do. You'll need some people who can do heavy lifting, others to prepare food for the party at the end of the cleanup, others to paint over graffiti, still others to distribute water or to run errands. As discussed earlier, those who are housebound can make phone calls or arrange for trash pickup with municipal officials. Don't turn away anyone who wants to be part of the cleanup.

Plan the cleanup itself

Even if your cleanup is very small – three or four volunteers sweeping up one intersection – there will be some planning to do. If it's larger – and most are – you'll have to plan carefully to ensure success. You will need to:

  • Coordinate the effort. There needs to be an individual or small group (no more than two or three) that keeps track of everything and everyone throughout the day, addresses issues, dispatches volunteers, and is available to handle problems and emergencies. The coordinator may stay in one place or may move throughout the cleanup area, but should be reachable by cell phone at all times. If coordination is shared, one person might be responsible for handling problems, another for assisting volunteers with equipment, information, water, etc. In any case, someone has to see the whole picture at any given moment, and to be able to help or intervene where necessary.

An important part of coordination is maintaining communication among all the groups working on the cleanup. If one crew needs more people and another has people standing around, the coordinator can find that out and see that volunteers from the second crew are transferred to the first. If there's a medical emergency, the coordinator should be informed immediately, and should either dispatch help or decide whether to call an ambulance or drive someone to the emergency room. Communication is also important for publicity (making sure crews know that a media person is about to arrive, dispatching a photographer to a place where something interesting is happening.)

  • Ask for help from the municipality. If your community offers loaned tools, dumpsters, free pickup, or other aids for neighborhood cleanups, you should ask for whatever you need well in advance. In many municipalities, you'll have to plan several months ahead in order to take advantage of the services available.

One service that might be important is a police officer to direct traffic around cleanup crews working in streets. Police presence will also emphasize the "official" character of the cleanup.

  • Get permissions and permits. If you want to use a parking lot as a gathering point and dumping place, you'll have to get permission from the owner. If you want abandoned cars hauled away, you will need to contact the municipality. In some cases, you may need a permit to work in certain areas. All of this should be taken care of well ahead of time, so you don't find yourself with a crowd of volunteers waiting and unable to do anything.
  • Decide what needs to be done. The assessment done earlier should have identified areas of the neighborhood that most need attention. If the event is a household cleanup, the planning group should know which blocks are likely to need the most hauling. A public space cleanup might need to be concentrated in one or more places that pose a health hazard or are particular eyesores. If there are abandoned vehicles to be dealt with, they need to be reported to the municipality. Crews might need to be of different sizes and composed of volunteers with different abilities. Some of the tasks volunteers might do:
    • Sweep
    • Lift and carry heavy objects
    • Pick up trash, either by hand or with shovels or litter sticks
    • Load waste of various kinds into cars or trucks
    • Coordinate with municipal equipment and employees
    • Act as a communications hub in order to dispatch crews and vehicles to places where they're needed
    • Direct traffic
    • Place signs, traffic cones, and other similar items
    • Drive cars or trucks to haul waste and/or transport volunteers
    • Load and push or pull carts or wheelbarrows
    • Wash surfaces
    • Paint over surfaces defaced with graffiti or other markings
    • Shop for needed items – food, paper towels, drinks, brooms, etc.
    • Child care
    • Prepare food
    • Provide entertainment and encouragement
    • Distribute food and drink
    • Provide a sound system and/or play music for the after-cleanup party
    • Offer first aid and emergency medical help (if trained to do so)
  • Manage volunteers. The coordinator of volunteers might be someone other than the overall coordinator. They would assign volunteers to appropriate crews – no people with bad backs carrying refrigerators – that are the right size for the amount of work to be done. If crews are larger than two or three, each would benefit from choosing a captain, who will communicate with the volunteer coordinator, keep track of tools, and help the crew decide what's to be done next by whom. The volunteer coordinator might travel among volunteer crews throughout the cleanup, bring extra water and supplies, check to make sure there are no medical or health issues, solve problems, and generally provide support. They would also be responsible for making sure that volunteers got transportation to their work sites and back, and for placing volunteers in crews close to home where possible.

There's an argument to be made that volunteers should not work close to home, so that they can become familiar with residents from other parts of the neighborhood. That will help build neighborhood solidarity, in addition to broadening residents' connections with the rest of the neighborhood and increasing social capital.

  • Work with the media to gain positive publicity. Be sure to inform the media and keep it informed as your plans for the cleanup develop. Try to place stories about the cleanup in local print and broadcast media, and on the Internet. Designate a person to take pictures throughout the event, both so that you'll have a record of what went on, and so that you can feed pictures to the media, put them up on a website, and share them through social networking sites. Invite media people to the cleanup, and designate someone to accompany them, help them find what they need, introduce them to volunteers, etc. The more helpful you are, the more likely media folks are to get good stories that will then get published, and the more they'll want to highlight your work.
  • Take care of the nitty gritty. If your cleanup involves many volunteers, you'll need portable bathrooms and a large supply of drinking water (and perhaps snacks as well). You may want to offer volunteers morning coffee before they start their work. First aid and emergency medical help is a necessity – a neighbor who's an EMT (emergency medical technician) or health professional and a fully stocked first aid kit. If you have to make announcements, you'll need a bullhorn or a sound system. You'll need a plan for identifying and dealing with hazardous waste – volunteers shouldn't be handling it. You'll also need somewhere to dispose of any trash and recyclables generated by the cleanup itself – food wrappers, empty water bottles, sponges, etc. Paying attention to these kinds of details will help the cleanup go smoothly and reduce stress for everyone.
  • Make the cleanup fun. The more enjoyable you can make the work, the more people will be willing to volunteer again and bring their friends and families. Having a clown or face-painting for kids who volunteer, creating contests around which crew can pick up the most trash, giving printed t-shirts or caps to all volunteers, having a local band go from group to group to serenade them during the day – any or all of these and any number of other activities might make the cleanup seem more like a block party.

Volunteers could wear logo t-shirts or caps while working in order to identify themselves to one another and to neighborhood residents not involved in the cleanup. Such a "uniform" helps to create bonds among volunteers and leaves them with a souvenir of the day. Whether or not this is feasible depends, of course, on your resources.

  • Celebrate when you're done. You should plan a party or neighborhood meal after the cleanup. Volunteers can be recruited specifically to prepare and serve food. (Elders who want to contribute to the effort but are unable to do the physical work necessary might be good candidates for this task, as might faith community groups that are experienced in preparing meals for large numbers of people.) The celebration should include recognition of what was accomplished, recognition of each crew, perhaps some special awards (humorous or otherwise), and a chance to view pictures of the event. A celebration puts a cap on the cleanup, makes participants feel good, acknowledges their work, and helps them understand what they've been able to do in only a short time.

Run the cleanup

It's all planned – now do it.

Monitor and record your efforts

Document what's happening throughout the event, both with pictures and notes, so that you can review later and determine what you need to change and what went well and should be continued.

Create a structure to keep the effort going

If the cleanup was spearheaded by a neighborhood organization that's willing to maintain the effort, it might appoint a Cleanup Committee, composed of at least some of the members of the planning committee for this cleanup, to carry the process forward. If the cleanup was a stand-alone project, the planning committee, or those members who are interested, could become the Neighborhood Cleanup Committee. Whatever the case, the effort is unlikely to continue unless a group takes responsibility for doing so, and appoints a chair or coordinator to keep everything on track. The type of structure doesn't really matter, as long as it works: but having a structure of some sort is absolutely crucial if the program is to continue.

Start planning for the next cleanup

Remember that a cleanup program isn't a one-shot operation. It's an ongoing effort that should cover the whole neighborhood, and be maintained over time. You'll have to keep at it if you want the neighborhood to remain free of waste and litter. The longer you maintain your effort, the more residents will get the idea that it's everyone's responsibility to keep the neighborhood in good shape, both by not throwing anything in the street or elsewhere themselves, and by picking up waste or reporting it when they see it. Once that happens, there will be more volunteers than are needed for every cleanup, and the neighborhood itself will have turned a corner toward a better quality of life for residents and businesses.

In Summary

A neighborhood cleanup can improve the look of your neighborhood, but can do much more as well. Especially in a neighborhood where people residents see themselves as having little reason to hope – where poverty is rife, unemployment is all too common, and crime and decay make life difficult – a successful cleanup can be the beginning of neighborhood regeneration. It can not only make the neighborhood more pleasant to look at, but can improve neighborhood self-image and confidence. Residents have a chance to bond with one another, to cross racial, ethnic, cultural, and other lines and establish neighborhood coherence. Perhaps most important, they can begin to see how much control they can exercise over their lives if they work together with a common purpose.

Establishing a neighborhood cleanup program can be a boon for any neighborhood, simply by increasing connections among neighbors and creating community. When it brings the possibility of improving lives as well, its value can be even greater. For that to happen, however, someone has to take the lead in developing a structure that can keep such a program going over the long term. In order to bring about long-term social change – and that's what we're discussing here – you have to build a structure that will survive the departure of the builders, and benefit the neighborhood indefinitely.

 

Contributor

Phil Rabinowitz

Editor

Andrea Glinn

 

We encourage the reproduction of this material, but ask that you credit the Community Tool Box: http://ctb.ku.edu/.

Online Resources

Clean Streets L.A. Los Angeles city-wide effort to clean neighborhoods.

Neighborhood Services. Fort Collins, Colorado, neighborhood cleanup suggestions and rules. The city offers grants to groups for the cost of dumpsters and tipping fees.

Planning and Sustainability. Portland, Oregon, has a spring cleanup with more the 40 scheduled events organized by each neighborhood, with their own coalitions and websites as resources on the events and how to get involved.

A Successful Neighborhood Cleanup. Tips for organizing a successful neighborhood cleanup from the Nebraska Extension office.