From Filthy to Philly: The City’s Problem With Litter And The Steps It’s Taking To Change It

“Philadelphia is the only major city in the United States without a citywide street-sweeping program.” When I read this bit some time ago, it began to make sense to me why after almost a decade of living here, Philly’s problem with litter is still one of its most devastating issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are pockets of the city that are as clean as they can probably get. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway area, for instance, is one of the most majestic sights and can compare to the visual attractions in any other city. However, as a whole, the literal streets of Philadelphia are too often neglected and the policies for cleaning them up are not nearly widespread enough.

The importance of clean streets goes beyond the aesthetic appeal. Although the look of our roads may be initially what brings the problem to light for many, litter can have a range of negative consequences on the environment we live in. For one, it can reduce property values. Studies in the U.S and U.K have shown that littered streets can decrease home values by 10% or more. It also discourages potential homeowners or business owners from wanting to set up shop in an area.

Being surrounded by a littered area can be very dispiriting. A 2012 study published in the Journal for Urban Health found that the buildup of litter can cause stress and depression, especially in people who feel they are unable to stop it. These mental health consequences are alongside the physical health ones. Litter attracts rodents, insects and vermin that can carry diseases with them.

The city hasn’t always been without a program to keep the streets clean. In fact, Philadelphia was named in the mid 1900s, “National Cleanest Town,” by the National Clean Up and Paint Up Bureau. Going further back to 1916, over a century ago, the city had an appointed street-sweeping official named Edith W. Pierce. Pierce worked to put together a group of official city beautifiers to take care of litter on the streets. Prior to that you had the South Philadelphia Vare brothers who dominated street cleaning businesses and collection routes in the 19th century. And even before then, Mr. Philadelphia himself, Benjamin Franklin called for a street sweeping program with a bill that passed in 1762. This push by Franklin was despite a similar kind of opposition that the city has received today, which is that the actual act of cleaning the streets can be inconvenient or disruptive to residents or people walking around. In the 1700’s the complaint was the concern of dust flying into the windows of stores and homes, whereas in the 2000’s it is the inconvenience of residents being forced to move their vehicles away for machines to clean where their automobiles are parked.

Fast forwarding to today, a number of initiatives have been put together to get the streets clean. Expected to launch in April 2019, the city is developing a pilot test program, which will combine the efforts of mechanical sweepers and manual laborers who will blow trash into the streets for the sweepers to pick up. Headed by the city’s Managing Director Brian Abernathy, the program will target six neighborhoods in the city who need it most, based on a litter index.

PHL’s litter index map

It’s important to note that the current $850,000 a year sweeping program, which the Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams oversees, will not be a part of the pilot. However, as remarked by the commissioner himself, depending on the success of the pilot, it would be great to replicate it for their current program.

In order to fully bring back citywide street sweeping, according to the Streets department, it would cost the city an estimated $5.2 mill annually and $12 mill upfront to purchase the proper equipment. The Mayor has been pushing for clean streets since the time he entered office and just two years ago, his team launched the Zero waste and litter action plan. This plan has been driven by the creation of 5 subcommittees focused around behavioral science, community engagement, enforcement and actionable ways to decrease waste in the city. The ultimate goal is to help Philadelphia become 90% zero waste and litter-free by 2035.

The 2018 results from the zero waste and litter-free by 2035 plan can be viewed here

Along with the city’s efforts, there are also specific community organized steps being taken. These actions are being driven by organizations like “Not In Philly,” which was created by West Philly Resident Dave Brindley. Not In Philly allows people to ‘claim’ a block and promise to clean their adopted street one time a week for six months.

@notinphilly on IG

This problem has not gone unnoticed, and given the very connected world we are living in, I’d be curious about how technology could either further facilitate what is already going on, or expedite the process of cleaning up our streets. There have even been discussions around potentially paying some of the homeless population $10/hr to serve as a city streets clean up crew.

I would like to see what a Philadelphia with clean streets across the board looks like, and how it can impact the standing of the city relative to other major cities in the nation. A clean street shows respect for the block, and it supports a healthy environment that encourages everything from relationship building to economic development. This is not to even mention the intangible feeling of simply walking through the city and being able to celebrate the beauty of all that is Philadelphia. It would be nice to see a noticeable difference with trash on the streets with both major and minor initiatives, and a ramp up of overall efforts. If that occurs, maybe on the way to Philadelphia 2035 we can also be happy with a Philadelphia 2025.


Street sweeping in Philly: A history of the city’s efforts to keep itself clean

Philly street cleaning pilot will ‘blow trash into street’ to bypass parking issues

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