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Section 10. Establishing Neighborhood Beautification Programs

Practical guidance for planning and implementing a neighborhood beautification program to make important changes to enhance quality of life.


Image of the two men outside in a pergola, with a garden behind them, from The Fertile Ground Collective

Motor City Blight Busters director John George and
The Fertile Grounds Collective director Cornell Royal.


Let’s take a weekend walk through a neighborhood in each of two smallish cities in a temperate climate. We’ll assume they’re similar in most ways – demographics (age, ethnic and racial background, income, etc.), geography (landscape, distance from the center of town), amount of open space, mix of residential and commercial buildings, and the architecture of those buildings.

As we begin our walk in City A, we notice that many streets lack sidewalks, and the ones that do exist are often cracked and broken. Trash clogs the gutters, covers the neighborhood park, and blows around in the wind. Many lawns have more bare dirt than grass, and there are few flowers or shrubs in anyone’s yard. Trees are noticeably absent from the neighborhood as well, and many of the small but well-built houses have peeling paint or missing siding. Knots of young men huddle and smoke at the edges of the empty park, glaring as we walk by. In the commercial areas, storefronts are dull, but often have huge, garish signs. Traffic roars down the main streets and many of the smaller ones as well, and the noise of it is everywhere, even in residential parts of the neighborhood. The overwhelming impression is of a loud, barren, dirty, charmless place.

In City B, sidewalks and bike lanes in good repair wind throughout the neighborhood, and are well used by residents. The wider streets have central islands alive with flowers, and every house seems to have at least one tree in its yard and another between the sidewalk and the curb, many with flowers and shrubs planted around them. Yards are grassy, and often have well-tended gardens. Houses are neatly painted, many in interesting colors. A city park is full of people picnicking, playing sports, and walking the signed nature trails that lead through woods and by a stream. Businesses on a commercial street are welcoming, with displays outdoors. Smaller streets have speed bumps and other traffic controls, and there are benches and bins of flowers on sidewalks. The noise level is a pleasant hum, giving a sense of a relaxed, enjoyable environment.

These descriptions are obviously extremes, but we’re all familiar with places that are apparently similar, but feel very different. The physical character and the feel of a neighborhood have a great deal to do with each other, and neighborhood beautification isn’t just a matter of impressing the neighbors or trying to make everything “perfect.” It affects the way people interact, and the way they feel not only about their neighborhood, but about themselves and their neighbors. As a result, it can make a huge difference in the quality of life in a neighborhood or a city.

In this section, part of a chapter on enhancing the quality of life in a community by changing the physical and social environment, we’ll discuss neighborhood beautification, and look at how you can often make important changes in your neighborhood or community even if there’s very little money available to do so.

What do we mean by a neighborhood beautification program?

In simplest terms, neighborhood beautification means making a neighborhood look and feel better. While the residents of some neighborhoods may be concerned with forcing their ideas of beauty and acceptability on others, most simply want their neighborhoods to be livable and pleasant. Neighborhood beautification, if it’s approached with the right attitude, can lead to more interaction among neighbors from diverse backgrounds, more neighborhood life, and a neighborhood look and feel that attracts new residents and businesses and supports both economic development and a sense of community.

A neighborhood beautification program isn’t a single event (“Fix Up Your Yard Day”), but rather a strategy to maintain, enhance, and/or change the character of your neighborhood over the long term. You may approach particular elements of the program one at a time, but your focus should be on your long-term vision for the neighborhood.

Neighborhood beautification can take place both on a whole-neighborhood level and on an individual-property level. The ideal is that both come into play, with both larger bodies (neighborhood organizations and coalitions, municipal government) and individual property owners involved.

Depending on the current condition of the neighborhood, beautification may range from addressing a single building or area to a nearly complete makeover of the whole neighborhood. In either case, there are a number of aspects to consider as you think about what might benefit from change.

  • Cleanliness. Even an unattractive neighborhood will look enormously better and be nicer to live in if the streets, sidewalks, parks, grassy areas, and empty lots are free of trash and dog droppings, there are no plastic bags stuck in trees or on electric wires, and both pavement and buildings are free of graffiti and grime.

Almost all graffiti are illegal, and most contribute to a look of disrepair, chaos, and neglect. In most cases, graffiti removal – either by painting over or by sandblasting – is a standard part of neighborhood beautification. There’s an argument to be made, however, that some graffiti have artistic value and actually improve the looks of blank walls, particularly in industrial neighborhoods, and ought to be left alone. That’s a controversial position considering the law, but one that ought to be broached within the community before taking action.

  • Harmony and variety of buildings. Neighborhoods where all the houses look the same are visually boring; those where the buildings have no connection to one another – high-rise apartments or office buildings next to one-story supermarkets next to three-story houses – can be jarring and chaotic. The ideal neighborhood has enough harmony among the buildings that the eye isn’t confused, and still has enough variety that the eye doesn’t get tired looking at them.
  • The condition of individual buildings. Nothing proclaims the character of a neighborhood more than the condition of its buildings. This element often reflects the socio-economic level of neighborhood residents, but also affects the neighborhood’s self-image and the way they are perceived by the community at large. A positive change in the physical attractiveness of the neighborhood can have a positive effect on residents’ self-image, and vice versa.
    Abandoned buildings are especially detrimental in this regard. An abandoned building indicates a lack of value to the owner or other investors which reflects on the neighborhood as well as on the building itself. If abandoned buildings can either be rehabilitated or replaced, it can greatly improve the look and feel of the neighborhood.

Abandoned buildings, especially if they are old and/or historic, can be a resource rather than a nuisance. Section 7 of this chapter, Encouraging Historic Preservation, discusses why you might want to preserve and recycle a run-down building, and provides both practical information and links to help you do so.

  • Other unused or potentially dangerous sites. Bridges, abandoned industrial sites, out-of-service railroad tracks and yards, decaying docks – these are not features likely to improve life in a neighborhood. If, however, like abandoned buildings, they can be recycled, they may benefit the neighborhood in unexpected ways. Abandoned railroad beds and canal towpaths can be turned into bike and hiking paths (such as the HighLine in New York City and the 606 in Chicago). Brownfields (polluted former industrial sites) can be reclaimed (often with government subsidies and tax incentives) and turned into attractive, eco-friendly residential or mixed use developments.

When a trolley line went out of business in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts in 1928, the local garden club decided to turn its bridge over the Deerfield River into a garden. Over 80 years later, the Bridge of Flowers, as it came to be called, is still a tourist attraction, and helps to beautify and to bolster the economy of a downtown that supports many craftspeople and artists, good restaurants, and a theater.

  • Greenery and plantings. To early humans, green plants meant survival – water, berries and nuts to eat, animals to hunt. Even though most of us no longer need to stalk our main course, green still makes us feel good. Trees, flowers, grass, and shrubs can help a neighborhood feel welcoming and well-loved.

Planting lush lawns and spreading maple trees is inappropriate in dry climates, where watering plants and lawns consumes a scarce resource. You can, however, plant native species that have evolved to survive and thrive in a dry environment, and that need very little or no care, and these native plantings can still placate our need for biophilia.

  • Parks and other open space. Open space in a neighborhood – parks, lawns, tree-lined plazas, and the like, (not parking lots so much) – provides views, fresh air, room to move, and a feeling of spaciousness. Green space is by nature comforting and relaxing however it must be maintained. If it’s covered with garbage or weeds, it will be an eyesore, not an asset.
    Parks require upkeep. If they’re well used, they’ll also show signs of wear. Many neighborhood parks are maintained at least in part by community volunteers. Many parks have also been reclaimed from crime and danger by concerted neighborhood action, and have been turned into frequently used, family-friendly places where neighborhood residents feel comfortable and safe.
  • The streetscape. The streetscape is the landscape of the street, the combination of buildings and their facades, paving, plantings, open spaces, traffic patterns, and other features that make up what you see as you move through a neighborhood. A mix of colors, shapes, light and shade, and various objects (walls, benches, planters, etc.) can make for an interesting streetscape, one that entices people to linger or explore. On the other hand, a streetscape that’s too chaotic or too dull and empty can be unpleasant or threatening, and can discourage people from using it.

Starting in the 1960’s, many cities in the U.S. and elsewhere sacrificed interesting and lively streetscapes to enormous buildings with few windows on the lower floors. The streets became uninviting canyons with no street life. These buildings may generate income for the owners and taxes for the city, but they sharply reduce the attractiveness of the neighborhood and the quality of life for residents.

  • Signage. Signs can identify and advertise businesses and public buildings, regulate vehicle traffic and parking, inform people of laws and rules (“no smoking”), guide them to important neighborhood locations, and tell them where they are. Signage can also be a form of environmental art using graphics, color, materiality and design to set a tone and define the personality of a place.
    Signs can either contribute to or detract from neighborhood beautification. They should be appropriate for their location, whether in Times Square or a residential area in a small town, when it comes to how the signage is expressed and installed. You wouldn’t want a large flashing neon sign at the entry to a suburban subdivision or a small hand painted sign in front of a hospital. Signs should be attractive, easily visible and legible, , and placed strategically to maximize impact.
  • Lighting. Both the appearance and function of street lights and other outdoor lighting fixtures can be issues here. Tall mercury-vapor or sulfur lamps that broadcast green or bright yellow light in all directions obscure the night sky, distort colors, and are out of proportion on most neighborhood streets. Smaller lamps that throw the same amount of white light downward onto the street and sidewalk eliminate all these problems without sacrificing either visibility or safety, and add to the attractiveness of the neighborhood. The same considerations can be applied when lighting businesses, large buildings, residences, or common spaces.
  • Traffic. Most neighborhoods have at least one major artery, usually lined with commercial and public buildings, that carries much of the area’s public transportation and automobile traffic. Major arteries are meant to do this and keep all but local traffic away from the smaller streets on which residents live. When the side streets get clogged, the neighborhood starts to feel, sound, and smell more like an industrial or commercial zone.
    Where traffic is inevitable – on streets next to a limited-access highway, for example – noise barriers, trees, or other types of screening might be necessary. Where that’s not the case, speed bumps, one-way traffic patterns, and other strategies can be used to keep residential streets clear and quiet.

Noise and smell, as well as visual elements, are beautification concerns. Furthermore, exposure to constant noise, even at a relatively low level, can have negative physical and psychological effects on people. Traffic and industrial fumes can contribute to respiratory disease. Controlling noise and smell in a neighborhood, therefore, may not only make the neighborhood more livable, but also maintain the health of its residents.

  • Parking. Regulating parking can make a huge difference in the attractiveness and livability of a neighborhood. At the same time, large parking lots, especially on the street side of businesses, take up valuable open space and create spaces that are bare and unfriendly to pedestrians.
    Solutions to the problem might include above- or underground multi-level garages, landscaped parking lots with tree- and plant-covered islands, rows of trees or bushes that screen parking from the sidewalk, or landscaped or decorative curb cutouts that allow parking out of the flow of traffic.
  • Public art. Art in the public realm is inextricably entwined with the history of mankind and civilization. Hundreds of years ago art would tend to be either religious or political, but these days public art can represent almost anything: a memorial to fallen firefighters or to a cultural figure, an abstract sculpture meant to stir the imagination, a mural picturing the ethnic and racial diversity of the neighborhood. Whether these are the work of professional artists or of local amateurs, they should add value and in some way reflect the character of the neighborhood.

Neighborhood beautification can be a simple matter of recruiting volunteers to perform physical tasks that improve the attractiveness of the neighborhood. If you’re concerned with projects that cost a great deal, or with instituting or changing policies, regulations, or laws, however, your program might need to include advocacy.

There are many projects that a neighborhood can successfully complete independently. Some might benefit from municipal involvement but can still be accomplished without it. A partial list:

  • A neighborhood, park, or lot cleanup. The municipality may have a program that loans tools, equipment, and/or city employees to help. (If it doesn’t, you might want to advocate for starting one.)
  • Improvement of individual properties. You can’t force anyone to fix up a home or business, but you can present the opportunity, and offer help from neighborhood volunteers. Youth can be great volunteers for this kind of project, and can sometimes get credit for a middle or high school community service requirement. Volunteers could help with painting, planting or mowing yards, taking away unwanted objects and equipment, and making simple repairs.
  • Clearing trash and brush and/or building trails in a natural area. Here’s another case where the use of municipal equipment would be helpful, but not necessary.
  • Painting over graffiti.
  • Creating a mural or other artwork. Such projects are sometimes spearheaded by neighborhood artists, volunteering their services as designers (i.e. making drawings – often based on a community decision process – which community volunteers then paint). In some cases, a mural can replace unwanted graffiti.
  • Planting borders, trees, median strips, etc.

The issue of design arises here. A mural or decorative planting can best be done with the help from people with an eye for design, although they don’t necessarily have to be professionals. Design is particularly important to a major project. If part of your effort involves installing a piece of public art, for example, or rehabilitating a historic building, a good deal of thought needs to go into what the finished product should look like and how it should fit into its surroundings. Here you might need a professional to advise neighborhood residents.

When neighborhood beautification demands the cooperation or help of the municipality or some other government body (a state agency, for example), your program may need to employ advocacy to get what it needs. There are six chapters in the Community Tool Box (30-35) devoted to advocacy, so we won’t go into the specifics of it here. Let’s look instead at what you might want to advocate for:

  • Help in realizing a neighborhood vision. Whether your effort is part of a city-led neighborhood development initiative, or grew solely from the neighborhood, if you need help from the larger community – street or sidewalk repair, for example, or tree work – you’ll have to approach local officials and persuade them to provide what you need.
  • Tax or other incentives to motivate developers and/or businesses to follow specific standards. This may require advocacy with local appointed or elected officials, with state legislators, or with state agencies.

Advocacy might involve help with an application for historic status or other eligibility for a building or neighborhood. Many grants and incentives for historic preservation or environmental restoration have specific requirements, and the funding agencies often assist communities in meeting those requirements. In some cases, the question of eligibility is political as well as practical, and advocacy – often with the help of a state representative or Congressman – may be needed.

  • New laws, regulations, or policies, or changes in existing ones. If laws or regulations already exist, but aren’t being enforced, that calls for one kind of advocacy. Trying to institute new laws or regulations calls for strategies similar to those you’d use to advocate for incentives.
  • Cooperation or collaboration from neighborhood businesses or corporations or industries that operate in the neighborhood. The program may call for imaginatively-painted storefronts, for example; that isn’t likely to be realized unless businesses agree to go along. The incentives mentioned above might help merchants to pay for changes related to neighborhood beautification.

Advocacy works best when there is collaboration with officials, agencies, and/or businesses. Always start by approaching the people you’re advocating with as allies. If you can realize your goals by working with officials, policy makers, and business owners without an adversary action, that’s ideal. If you can involve them in planning the program, you may have their cooperation from the very beginning.

When officials or businesses are completely uninterested in participating or cooperating, or refuse to even listen to neighborhood concerns, some sort of social action may be the best course. This might involve petitions, demonstrations, political pressure from another source (a sympathetic congressman, for example), a media campaign, or, as a last resort, a lawsuit. Social action involves organizing the neighborhood to act in a united way. It’s not likely to be successful unless the issue is one that’s really important to people. Use it sparingly, and only after less adversarial methods have failed.

Why establish a neighborhood beautification program?

Neighborhood beautification can be useful in a number of different circumstances. Depending on the character of your neighborhood, you may only be concerned with one or two of the following factors or your vision may embrace them all.

  • A neighborhood beautification program can build neighborhood pride and ownership. Litter in lots and yards, broken windows, dirty walls, obscene graffiti, and barren streets with no street life don’t only make a bad first impression; those attributes also decrease residents pride and sense of community. When residents notice improvements – or better yet help with the changes– they develop neighborhood pride and feel better about their community and home. If they’ve been responsible for the change, they’ll not only take ownership of it and work to sustain it over time, but may feel motivated to change other things in their lives as well.
  • Neighborhood beautification can improve the quality of life of the residents. Living in pleasant surroundings improves daily life. and may help to foster connections among residents When a person has a good quality of life they are happier and relieved of many stressors related to their safety and well-being.
  • Neighborhood beautification can help attract new residents. Neighborhoods remain vital if they continue to attract and retain residents. Being able to attract new residents to replace those that move away is imperative for a healthy community. Regardless of status or the income level of the residents, a neighborhood that’s cared for strengthens the community and makes people want to live there.
  • Neighborhood beautification can help attract new business. Neighborhood businesses are important for many reasons: they provide convenient local shopping and services, they can offer jobs to neighborhood residents, and they can keep the neighborhood alive, contributing to street life and economic development. Most business would prefer to move to areas that are attractive and where residents and other businesses take care of their properties. Well-kept neighborhoods with regular street traffic increases business.
  • Neighborhood beautification can attract entertainment and culture. As with businesses in general, a neighborhood beautification effort can attract attention from the entertainment industry as well: a theater company, a museum, a movie theater, etc.. Cultural attractions provide residents opportunities for recreation and culture, and can only help improve the quality of life.
  • Neighborhood beautification can serve as the base for neighborhood revitalization. Because a neighborhood beautification program can help to attract new residents, businesses, and cultural institutions, it can help turn a dull, mediocre neighborhood into a vibrant, excellent one. It often takes only a small step or two to start a turnaround – a new restaurant, an art gallery, or an experimental theater may signal to the community that the neighborhood is on the upswing.

Revitalization can be a double-edged sword. All too often, a low- or moderate-income neighborhood becomes trendy, developers move in to build luxury housing, and the original residents are forced out unaffordability. When this happens, it doesn’t feel like revitalization or progress. If revitalization is part of a program’s long-term strategy, planning should ensure that the original residents – those who in fact will have brought about the changes that make the neighborhood more desirable – have the chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

  • Neighborhood beautification can improve neighborhood and community health. Reduced or adjusted traffic patterns may have a direct impact on health. Trash removal, increased open space, and expanded plantings can all have positive effects on both physical and psychological health.
  • Neighborhood beautification is a way to involve youth and other people who are often overlooked. Both planning and volunteer projects can put to work the abilities and knowledge of youth, elders, and people with disabilities, language minorities, and others who are often ignored. Bringing these folks into the mainstream of neighborhood activity means a stronger and more equitable neighborhood community; more potential volunteers; and a broader and more accurate perspective on neighborhood resources, needs, and possible projects.
  • Neighborhood beautification can build stronger neighborhood relationships. The experience of working with others on a project that everyone is invested in creates bonds. These connections weave a web of social capital, which enrich lives and strengthen the community.

Social capital is somewhat like economic capital. It’s the social “currency” that’s available for people to spend as a result of their relationships. All social capital comes from constructing networks through meeting and getting to know others. These opportunities can come from repeated business transactions, from neighborhood events, or simply from meeting on the street day after day.

Social capital, like financial capital, flows both ways. You continue to earn it through positive interactions, (helping friends move into a new apartment, for example, or chasing down a neighbor’s rebellious dog). Likewise, social capital can be casually redeemed when that neighbor you hardly know keeps an eye on your house when you’re on vacation or a neighbor shovels your walk after a big snow.

According to Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), there are two kinds of social capital. Bonding social capital is the advantage people develop from relationships with those who are essentially similar to themselves. Bridging social capital is that gained from relationships with people who are quite different, whether in culture, race or ethnicity, economic status, politics, or other factors. (Adapted from Chapter 26, Section 8, Creating Good Places for Interaction.)

  • Neighborhood beautification can send a message to the rest of the community about the values of your neighborhood. If your neighborhood is one that has been seen as run-down or undesirable, a neighborhood beautification program can help to change that perception. It proclaims that neighborhood residents have self-respect, that they care about their neighborhood and one another, and that they’re willing to work to make the neighborhood a better place to be.

When should you establish a neighborhood beautification program?

Any time is a good time to establish a neighborhood beautification program, but there are some times and circumstances that might make it easier to mobilize.

  • When a neighborhood group acts as a spearhead. Like most community activities, a neighborhood beautification program is most likely to succeed if the idea and the push for the effort come from the neighborhood itself.
  • When the neighborhood has gone, or is in danger of going, downhill. When people start moving because the neighborhood is no longer comfortable to live in, when drug dealers begin to appear in the area, when buildings are abandoned, it’s time to take action. Neighborhood beautification may not seem like an appropriate response to such circumstances, but it can affect both the character of the neighborhood and the ability of residents to band together to reclaim and rebuild their community.
  • When there’s a specific problem that needs to be tackled. A derelict building that needs to be rehabilitated or a garbage-strewn lot can be reason enough to take action. Addressing these problems can be a gateway to a more extensive neighborhood beautification program.
  • When funding or other support is available. A municipality or state may provide funds specifically for neighborhood beautification, or may loan tools, equipment, and/or manpower for related tasks. When that kind of support is available, initiating a program may be easier.
  • When there is a conjunction with a brownfields cleanup or similar effort. If the government or a developer is engaged in cleaning up a polluted industrial site to reuse it for a park or other purpose, neighborhood beautification is a logical follow-up.
  • When there is a concurrence with other types of neighborhood improvement efforts. Neighborhood beautification can go hand in hand with anti-drug or anti-violence campaigns, or economic development. Addressing the look, sound, and smell of the neighborhood can result in many of the kinds of changes that most residents want and appreciate.

Who should be involved in establishing a neighborhood beautification program?

As we’ll see in the “How-to” part of this section, the Community Tool Box believes that the best way to establish any neighborhood program is to involve as many individual stakeholders and groups as possible. For neighborhood beautification, people from all the groups and backgrounds that make up the neighborhood should be involved, since the effort will have effect everyone, whether they’re directly involved or not. This might include:

  • Homeowners.
  • Renters.
  • Landlords and property owners.
  • Business owners and managers.
  • Local officials including: neighborhood City Council representatives, state legislators, Board of Health members, etc.
  • Youth.
  • Specific populations defined by race, ethnicity, or other common denominator.
  • Neighborhood organizations. Possibilities include: neighborhood associations or councils, a neighborhood watch, block associations, and neighborhood youth groups.
  • Organizations and agencies that serve the neighborhood: a local hospital, the public library, health and human service organizations, cultural institutions.
  • Community services (planning, police and fire, garbage pickup, recycling, etc.)
  • Neighborhood faith communities.
  • Service clubs (Lions, Rotary, etc.)
  • Schools and other educational institutions.

How do you establish a neighborhood beautification program?

There are three phases to establishing a neighborhood beautification program.

  1. Recruiting people to participate in the effort and to determine what needs to be done.
  2. Planning for action, including developing a vision, setting short- and long-term goals, devising a strategy for meeting those goals, and developing an action plan (with a timeline) for each goal.
  3. Presenting the plan to the neighborhood, getting approval, and implementing the first step.

Phase One: Recruiting neighborhood residents as leaders and participants

Recruit people to take the lead. This could be an established neighborhood group, such as a neighborhood association, or simply a number of individuals who are interested or concerned enough to be willing to work on the effort. This group should reflect, to the extent possible, the diversity of the neighborhood in age, ethnicity, race, economic status and interest groups, as described above.

Since you’re establishing a program, not a one-time event, make sure this group has a structure that will keep it going as long as necessary. It should have a mechanism for cultivating new leaders, so that it won’t disappear if current leaders leave.

Conduct outreach to neighborhood residents to inform them about and involve them in the effort. The best way to obtain neighborhood support and ownership of the program is to involve as many residents as possible. Not everyone needs a leadership role, but everyone should at least have the chance to contribute to discussions about the vision (see below), and to take part or be represented in planning.

Outreach that relies mostly on personal contact – door-to-door canvassing, phone calls, personal referrals from friends and acquaintances, people handing out fliers and explaining the effort in public places – is most likely to attract people. Face-to-face or phone contact can be supplemented by signs and posters, public service ads on TV and radio, and media stories.

One important element of outreach is to get people’s names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses if applicable. Those will come in handy later when you distribute your plan and when you’re looking for volunteers for other kinds of support. It also ties people into a neighborhood network that can build social capital for everyone.

It’s important to reach out to everyone in the neighborhood, particularly those who are usually ignored. Some avenues to use to reach those residents:

  • Go door-to-door and/or make presentations in public housing. If there are tenants’ organizations or tenant advocates, you may get better results by working with them.
  • Visit homeless shelters, particularly family shelters. While many homeless people struggle with substance use and mental health problems, many others – particularly families – are more affected by loss of jobs and lack of social connections. Not only can they help the effort, but participation may help them establish connections as well.
  • Contact probation officers. Many of those on probation may have to perform community service, and could serve as volunteers on beautification projects. As with people who are homeless, their participation can help them regain their connections in the community.
  • Work with schools, Scouts, clubs, gangs, etc. to get youth involved.
  • Make presentations to ethnic churches, service clubs, and organizations.
  • Contact ethnic businesses both through associations (e.g., Chamber of Commerce) and individually.

Phase Two: Developing a plan for neighborhood beautification

The later stages of our process here reflect that chapter’s structure of VMOSA – Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategy, Action.

Assemble a participatory planning group. This should include representatives of as many significant population and interest groups in the community as possible, as well as interested residents with particular planning (or other skills) and community officials who can help.

Conduct a neighborhood assessment. You can use a variety of techniques to assess the assets and needs of the neighborhood.

  • Tap the knowledge and opinions of the neighborhood residents taking part in the planning group.
  • Conduct interviews, surveys, etc. with other residents, with an attempt to reach all groups in the neighborhood.
  • Conduct observations. Teams of observers armed with pencil and paper or laptops can gather specific information – addresses of trash-strewn lots, the condition of sidewalks, locations of benches in need of repair – as well as general impressions – condition of housing, the amount of street life, etc. All of this data can paint a picture of the neighborhood and identify strengths and areas of concern.
  • Consult with community planners and other knowledgeable people who are willing to help – academics, architects, or engineers, for example. These folks may live or work in the neighborhood, or simply be interested in helping, particularly if the neighborhood is largely low-income or presents an interesting challenge.

Most traditional assessments are based on problems or needs. Often, you can get better results from an asset-based assessment, starting with the neighborhood’s resources and examining how to use and strengthen them to solve problems and meet needs.

Develop a vision for the neighborhood. Based on the assessment and the needs and wishes of residents and businesses, the planning group should draft a vision that represents the ideal of what the neighborhood should be. After discussions to identify key points, a small group might draft a vision statement, and then present it first to the planning group and then to the neighborhood.

A vision statement is a long-term concept of what people would like the neighborhood to look like. Neighborhood beautification may be a long process, involving a series of initiatives over time, depending on what and how much needs to be done. The vision should describe the ideal end point, not the process.

The purpose of having a small group draft the statement is that the more people are involved, the more the group is likely to get bogged down in details of wording. That kind of refining needs to be done, but is more efficiently done once there is a basic statement to work from. When it goes back to the larger planning group and then to the community, the details will be hammered out.

Develop goals. (These are the Objectives in VMOSA.) Your overall goal is to actualize the vision. In order to get there you’ll have to achieve some more smaller milestones along the way. If your vision is too broad, it may be overwhelming and prevent action “A neighborhood with attractive and interesting businesses, colorful and well-cared-for houses and yards, and well-maintained, inviting open space, all enlivened with trees and plantings and public art.” These goals will be many, each covering an element of the vision statement.

It can be helpful in reaching goals if you develop benchmarks and checkpoints that show you’re making progress. A benchmark for “well-maintained, inviting open space,” for example, might be a clean-up of specific empty lots.

Consider carefully what resources you need for each goal, and don’t start on goals until obtaining those resources. You might want to start with something that needs only resources already available in the neighborhood – volunteer labor and transportation, cooperation from community services or agencies (trash collection, loans of tools or equipment, etc.) – so that it’s clear that it can get done. Projects that need money or expertise that’s not immediately available can go into the “We need to work on getting the resources for this” category. If substantial resources are needed, there should be a group whose task is specifically to chase those down. Good sources include: grants, community loans or donations, help from local businesses and corporations or industries that operate in the neighborhood, and advocacy with local and state agencies and officials.

Develop an overall strategy to realize your goals and, ultimately, your vision. Your strategy is a plan for how you’ll reach your goals. If you want to create incentives to persuade merchants to fix up their properties, for example, you may need to advocate with local officials, who can adjust property taxes or provide other incentives. Advocacy would then be one part of your strategy. You might need a different strategy for planting trees: Will you try to convince the municipality to do it? Will you use neighborhood volunteers? Will you apply for a grant?

Another element of strategy is establishing an approach, which goal(s) you’ll tackle first, which next, and so on. The order can make a big difference. It’s important to start with a goal that’s reachable, so that you can begin the effort with a victory. It’s much easier to draw neighborhood residents and businesses to your program if they see it as successful, which will keep the participants enthusiastic and ready for the challenges that more difficult goals might pose.

Your vision is your final destination. Your goals are steps along the way. Your strategy is the map that will get you from goal to goal. Now you have to get started, which you can do by making action plans.

Develop an action plan for each goal. What are you actually going to do to carry out your strategy? Exactly who will do what in how much time? Your action plan should be developed so that each stage of the program is feasible and takes a reasonable amount of time. For example, if the first phase is a clean-up (see Section 11 of this chapter), that can happen in a day or two, with enough volunteers and help from the city, then you are likely going to be off to a good start. Regular clean-ups can then be scheduled (quarterly, perhaps), so that the trash and dirt level stays under control. Other elements of beautification (acquiring and rehabbing abandoned buildings, sodding and planting open areas, controlling traffic, etc.) may take much longer and involve much more information-gathering and advocacy. Don’t try to do everything at once. As we’ve discussed, plan for one victory at a time, so that people maintain their interest and enthusiasm. If each phase is doable, fun, and successful, you’ll attract more volunteers and leaders as time goes on.

Develop a maintenance plan. Don’t forget that even one day of work has to be maintained. You might want to schedule a regular (perhaps monthly, quarterly, or annual, depending on the task) work day to make sure that what you’ve done doesn’t revert to its previous condition.

There are two elements to maintaining a neighborhood beautification program. One is the practical matter of doing whatever needs to be done to keep changes in place – cutting the grass, replanting damaged flowers or trees, trimming bushes, repainting faded signs, continuing your advocacy, etc. The other is social: convincing everyone in the neighborhood that the effort benefits them and the neighborhood as a whole. They’ll then contribute to the effort by helping to keep changes (i.e., not only not adding to trash in the neighborhood but keeping their own property up, picking up trash in the park, and generally helping to keep the neighborhood looking nice), spreading the word about what a good thing the program is, and volunteering for or supporting the next project.

Devise a way to monitor and evaluate your effort. Given that this is likely to be a community-driven and all-volunteer program, it may not have the resources for a formal evaluation. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t keep track of what you do. Monitoring what works well and what needs to be changed will make it possible for you to adapt your strategy to keep your program on track. You can record such data as how many residents show up at a meeting advertised in one way as opposed to another, or how many volunteers turn out on different days or for different activities. That kind of information can make the difference between a successful neighborhood beautification program and one that fizzles out without any fanfare.

Phase Three: Presenting the plan to the neighborhood, gaining approval, and implementing the first step

So far, the planning group has been the decision-making body, although with information gleaned from the assessment and other consultation with the neighborhood. Now, neighborhood residents, property owners, and businesses should have an opportunity to see and make suggestions about the plan, so the final version is one that just about everyone in the neighborhood can support.

Several of these steps will be made easier if you have a community website. Even people who don’t own computers can go online in the library or, for kids, at school. As of 2013, more than 80% of homes in the U.S. had computers, with most of those having some sort of Internet connection. A neighborhood website would probably reach a reasonable percentage of the homes in most neighborhoods, although both lack of education and low income appear to be barriers to computer and/or Internet access.

1. Present the plan to the neighborhood. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. The first few are obviously only relevant for those with Internet access:

  • Post the plan on a neighborhood website. Be sure to let people know – through newspapers, radio and TV public service ads, fliers, and word of mouth – that the plan is ready to examine. The information should include the places where those without Internet access can view the plan – the library, local schools, a college computer center, cooperating businesses, etc.
  • Post the plan to a Facebook or other social networking site.
  • Send the plan to the e-mail list you collected in the course of outreach and assessment.
  • Mail or deliver copies to all stakeholders (if you have the resources.)
  • Post or make available copies of the plan in prominent places in the neighborhood – the post office, the supermarket, the laundromat, restaurants, banks, public buildings, the library, etc.

You may be able to persuade some businesses or banks, as well as the library or the public school, to set aside space where people can read the plan or view a PowerPoint presentation of it.

  • Public meetings. Public meetings should be held to give everyone a chance to understand the significant parts of the plan. These meetings can be publicized through the channels that people in the neighborhood pay attention to – a local newspaper, a local-access cable TV station, a Spanish-language radio station, etc.

Make sure to provide the plan in whatever languages are prominent in the neighborhood, if there are one or more language minority populations among residents, and to provide translation at community meetings. As implied above, a PowerPoint or other slide presentation might also help to explain the plan to the neighborhood.

2. Collect feedback. Give people a number of ways to respond and set a deadline. There should be enough time to read and digest the plan and think about what they would add or change. Some of the ways people might give feedback, depending on the resources and skills of the planning group:

  • Post ideas to a neighborhood website, or on a neighborhood Internet forum.
  • Send feedback by e-mail.
  • Post feedback to a Facebook or other social networking site.
  • Give feedback in person at public meetings.
  • Send feedback in writing to a particular address.
  • Deposit written feedback at designated sites around the neighborhood.
  • Fill out a paper or online survey.
  • Participate in a focus group.
  • Provide feedback as part of a telephone sample.

3. Incorporate feedback to the extent possible. It would probably be impossible in any neighborhood to incorporate all the ideas that people have for additions and changes. The goal here is to end up with a plan that everyone can support and that the neighborhood can carry out with the resources it has or can obtain.

4. Present the final plan and ask for neighborhood support. If you’ve done your groundwork well and have taken stakeholders’ feedback seriously, the chances are that the neighborhood will overwhelmingly support the final plan. In general, when people’s opinions are respected and when they feel they’ve been part of the process, they’ll go along with the result, even if it doesn’t include everything they want. Any plan will involve some compromise on everyone’s part, but the significant parts of it are likely to be supported by the whole neighborhood.

Devise a way to declare the plan officially approved. You might do this at a public meeting, where people can signal their approval with a show of hands or, even better, a roar of “Aye.” Such a meeting can also be a media event, announcing to the community the start of your neighborhood beautification program. It can also serve as a kickoff celebration, with refreshments, perhaps a neighborhood band, and an announcement of the implementation of the first stage of your plan.

5. Implement the first stage of the plan. You haven’t truly established a program till you’ve done something. Once you successfully reach your first goal – and it should be one that you can reach – it will be much easier to drum up enthusiasm (and volunteers) to reach the next and the next.

Let’s assume that that first goal is a neighborhood work day of some sort – a yard clean-up, a planting day, a Get-Rid-of-That-Junk-You’ve-Been-Meaning-to-Recycle event. Here’s a possible checklist for how to make it happen:

  • Recruit volunteers. If you don’t really need volunteers, either find a way to use them, or change your activity to one that requires them. The more people you can involve right from the beginning, the better.
  • Arrange for any help you need from the community. As we’ve mentioned, many communities will loan tools and equipment (and the workers to run it) to neighborhood groups for beautification projects. A weekend of volunteer work with the help of chainsaws and a backhoe or dump truck from the municipality can turn that garbage-clogged creek bed surrounded by thickets back into a pleasant stream with grassy banks that allow access from the neighborhood.
  • Obtain any permits you need.
  • Devise and implement a strategy for coordinating the effort. Who will be in charge? How will you assign volunteers to work crews or decide who does what? Who will instruct and supervise volunteers, if necessary?
  • Plan for communication. Who will coordinate communication? How will crews or groups communicate, especially if people are spread throughout an area or throughout the neighborhood? Who will handle the media? (You want to publicize your effort, both for the benefit of neighborhood residents and to let the rest of the community know that your neighborhood is on the move.)
  • Plan for basic needs. How will you handle medical issues or emergencies (of any kind, not just medical – fires, spills, equipment breakdowns, etc.)? What about port-a-potties or other bathroom facilities? Will you have food and drink available during the period of the action, and, if so, where will it be?

Assign someone to take pictures throughout the period of the action, making sure to get before-and-after shots. Having a record of how much was accomplished is really important. Too often, neighborhood beautification projects never get started because they look too daunting. If people understand how little time and effort it actually takes to get things done when many people work together, they’re more likely to attempt other projects in the future, and/or to participate when asked. You can post pictures to a web site or send them to people by e-mail, as well as publicizing them through the media and posting prints around the neighborhood.

  • Alert the media. Media coverage is important to gaining neighborhood and community support.
  • Clean up, if that’s an issue. (If you’ve been doing a cleanup, it may not be.) If you’ve been planting, for example, all loose dirt should be swept up, any unused plants should be stored properly, empty fertilizer bags should be in the trash, tools should be cleaned and put away, etc. No one should know you’ve been there except by the results of your work.
  • Celebrate when you’re done. Now is definitely a time to have food and drink (perhaps donated by neighborhood merchants). Show the pictures of the day, recognize groups and individuals who participated, perhaps hand out humorous “awards” – dirtiest, most paint-splattered. Finish by congratulating everyone on a job well done and announcing what and when the next action will be.

If your plan starts with an advocacy activity, you’ll have to identify the targets of your advocacy, and decide how to contact them. Personal contact is absolutely the best course. Inviting key policy makers to have a conversation about your program and goals might be a good way to start. The ideal would be for them to offer what you hope to ask for.

6. Start working on the next stage of the plan. Recruit volunteers, start cultivating relationships with officials in order to advocate your need – whatever the plan calls for next, now, when neighborhood residents are still fired up by the success of your first stage, is the time to start working on it.

7. Keep the program going for the life of the neighborhood. Like so many community functions, neighborhood beautification programs don’t ever really end. People may throw less trash into the street, but there will still be some, and it will still have to be cleaned up. Plants have to be replanted or pruned or fertilized. Murals have to be repainted from time to time or they’ll disappear. Even if your neighborhood has become exactly what you hoped for, it still has to be maintained if it’s going to stay that way. There’s always more to do, and someone, or some group, has to take charge of making sure that it gets done. Here’s your broom.

In Summary

A neighborhood beautification program should do more than just make the neighborhood look better. Based on a neighborhood-generated vision, beautification can be the basis of a turnaround in the way residents see themselves and their neighborhood, and in the way they’re viewed by the community. It can certainly produce a profound improvement in residents’ surroundings; but it can also lead to economic development, cultural opportunities, and the building of a truly inclusive community held together by a strong web of social capital. A neighborhood with those characteristics is more than a place to live: it’s home.


Phil Rabinowitz

Andrea Glinn


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Online Resources

Community Beautification Lifts Spirits, Property Values from Useful Community Development. The benefits of community beautification from boosting morale to increasing property values.

Development without Displacement Toolkit provides practical lessons, frameworks, and tools that advance equitable development without displacing residents and small businesses. 

EcoDistricts Incubator is a “three-day intensive designed to accelerate sustainable urban regeneration from the neighborhood up.”

How Small Towns and Cities Can Use Local Assets to Rebuild Their Economies: Lessons from Successful Places is a series of EPA case studies.

Keep America Beautiful is a national NFP whose mission is to “inspire and educate people to take action to improve and beautify their community environment.”

Nurturing Healthy Neighborhoods: Communities Affect Health is a resource from the National Institutes of Health about how the environment around us influences our health.