Read the Cleanups Questions and Stories from Other Places to Help You Plan

Published: June 14, 2024

Your cleanups questions and stories about how you organized them will be priceless to some other neighborhood trying to plan a project or improve their longstanding tradition. You can submit on the form later in this page.

Cleanups are neighborhood-scale events—or occasionally city-wide events—that are hard to beat for being relatively simple to organize, economical to conduct, and big on visual impact. It is often easy to involve children and many senior citizens. The cleanup is usually over and done in a day or a half-day; these days when it is very hard to coax volunteers to show up on multiple days, this is a relatively high-impact activity that keeps most of your volunteers there most of the time.

volunteer inside a dumpster organizing it

Best of all, the reward for participation tends to be immediate, visible, easy to understand, and outstanding in its impact on the neighborhood, especially where trash of any kind tends to be a problem.

Especially if you can involve your town or city government in a supporting role, it may tend to impress your local government with how motivated your neighborhood is to maintain a pleasant appearance and safe environment for residents and visitors alike.

It’s great for the short videos and photos that make social media sing, and if you do well enough and consistently enough, you are likely to attract a local television crew as well.

On this page, I want to talk about four types of cleanups that are especially popular and rewarding. Park and alley cleanups usually take place entirely on public property, so it is quite easy to obtain permission to conduct the cleanup, unless you really have a contentious relationship with your local government.

Depending on state and local laws, the local streams, creeks, lakes, canals, and rivers may be considered public property, but it is quite likely your volunteers will need access from either park or other public lands, or from private property. The linear nature of most of these waterways also makes the ideal staging area longer and larger, and may add to the complexity of the project.

Lastly, the most difficult is the junky property cleanup where a property owner is unable or unwilling to do the work themselves, or worse, if you cannot locate a property owner. If this property has been seized by the local government for non-payment of taxes or for other reasons, the permission process and cooperation level will be just as simple as for a park or alley. However, if you want to clean up a private property, of course you are going to need that owner’s permission and cooperation to some extent.

Alley Cleanups as Neighborhood Projects

Although alley clean up isn't glamorous, we feel pretty sure that some of you need to plan this neighborhood activity. Sooner or later, most community activists who live where there are alleys begin to feel that the weeds, rats, graffiti, or loitering are just too much to take. 

So it's common to organize the neighbors, sometimes every spring, to undertake this project. This is particularly important if the solid waste collection truck drives down the alley, as it's likely that there are a few spills now and then.

If people enter garages from the alley, the cleanups also can prevent the nail in the tire situation and make it generally easier for drivers to see around obstacles such as those random sunflowers or the dumpster or rollout container at a rakish angle.

Some places have become more inventive. If the alley doesn't have a functional use, sometimes they've been converted to communal green space.

Sometimes, as famously is occurring in Chicago, the alley becomes "green" in the sense of being redone with more environmentally friendly paving (in the form of permeable asphalt or porous concrete) or more energy-saving lighting.

In commercial areas, alley cleanup needs to become a regular activity for merchants, landlords, the city, or a business improvement district. You will have to experiment to see what regular means to you, but in commercial districts that I have staffed, we have seen the need for a day every month to make sure alleys neat as clean. In the intervening weeks, individual merchants tend to take responsibility for removing any major obstacles, such as a dumped mattress, from the driving area. Without any formal schedule, employees and business owners just removed rotting pizza and burgers without any fanfare.

If neighbors are doubting the value or importance of alleys, please send them this link to our overview article on alleys.

Cleaning Up a Local Waterway

Stream cleanup can feel incredibly rewarding to a community. Volunteers and others who learn about the cleanup through social media or television will see and appreciate the sheer volume of litter and debris that you're likely to find in the creek itself and also along its banks, especially the first time you organize an event or campaign.

The beauty of these projects is that if they are done on an annual or semi-annual basis, there will be a tendency to find less and less trash to be collected as the years roll along.

Partly that's because with the first event, you may encounter the trash build-up from several years, particularly along the banks. But your first annual clean-up day also creates an important statement to the community. 

People get the idea that someone cares about the river, lake, or stream. Maybe they will reconsider throwing dirty diapers, snack wrappers, and paper plates into or next to the creek. Perhaps someone might connect the dots and figure out that what they throw down the storm sewer finds its way into the stream.

The benefits of working toward clean water go well beyond a vague do-gooder feeling. The accumulated volume of trash in a stream, or items along the banks that may be swept away during a storm, contributes to flooding. Recently I saw a situation in which a particularly large trash build-up blocked the stormwater flow and led to a localized flash flood affecting one property owner quite severely. 

Because clean water is the law of the land in the U.S., and has been since 1972, your community is obligated to do some degree of cleaning up waterways of any size before sending them on downstream. Beyond legal obligations, you may want to stress to your community that hazardous waste cleanup is a costly proposition.

If there's a bottle of insecticide, for instance, that's thrown in the storm sewer inlet and winds up in your creek, there's some serious pollution that your community may have to pay to clean up before the stream can empty into a larger body of water.

The specifics vary from place to place, but you can bet that someone somewhere is paying for neutralizing the effects of the most environmentally offensive trash.

Besides, a clean stream is just plain nice to look at.

Cleaning Up a Large Park

Large park cleanup projects can restore and support important benefits from nature, restructure how a community imagines its open spaces, or even perhaps change the perception of an entire part of the region.

Cleaning up a big park may seem to be a frivolous or trivial way to address community-wide or regional needs.  However, I have seen several examples of ambitious projects that increase resident involvement in the health of the park, decrease municipal or private landowner expenses over the long haul, expand the diversity of uses that can be accommodated in a particular park, and create new focal points for revitalization of nearby residences and neighborhoods.

On this page, the text will apply to large parks of city-wide or regional significance. If you want to know how to organize a clean-up for a neighborhood-level park or very small pocket park, you will find our cleaning up your neighborhood park page to be more relevant.

Let’s face it. If you have a large park that has been neglected, and you are doing a first time cleanup, now our assertion that cleanups are relatively easy to organize will no longer be accurate. In that case, you probably need to anticipate running the cleanup several Saturdays in a row. It might be tempting to schedule the cleanups for once a month, but if you can attract enough loyal volunteers, you have experience the biggest community boost by changing the perception of the park as quickly as possible. If you try for monthly or semi-annual cleanups, people will tend to forget how disgusting the park was before your first cleanup.

Sometimes portions of larger parks have been neglected for decades, or a former park may have become so overgrown it's not even common knowledge that it is a park. Invasive species, which might be kudzu, bush honeysuckle, or something else entirely, may have taken over.

In many towns and cities, parks suffered in the Great Recession, and municipal budget cuts for parks had not been completely restored when the coronavirus pandemic hit.  Despite good intentions, the assigned personnel may not be able to keep up with required maintenance. Drought, flooding, vandalism, graffiti, invasive species, wildfires, overuse in a few high-traffic spots, and random dumping all take a toll.

Climate change is making drastic weather events seem almost normalized, but many of these regional disasters damage large parks. Certain ecosystems may take a few years to be restored to their full glory after these major windstorms, wildfires, or flash floods hit. 

The problem is that when the park looks as though no one cares, that situation seems to attract laziness about property maintenance in general and may lead to a decline in nearby property values or at least in perceived attractiveness of the neighborhood or even the entire city.

If your large park contains cultural institutions of regional significance, you will need to be especially vigilant that the rest of the park matches visitor expectations about cleanliness, variety, and beauty. They will be forming subtle opinions of your whole city as they drive or ride transit into and out of the green space.

Cleaning Up That Abandoned Property

Neglected property cleanup can be a great benefit to your community beautification efforts. This term just means a vacant lot, parking lot, or building that is neglected and therefore chaotic, unsightly, or dirty. 

Don't underestimate the impact of a cluttered, dirty, abandoned property on visitors and even current residents. If you live or work close to such real estate, you may have grown slightly immune to how bad it looks. However, for some people, such neighbors drag down morale and even motivation for keeping up their own property. And visitors certainly notice even if the residents have become accustomed to it.

But when businesses are seeking site locations, prospective residents are considering investing in your neighborhood, or criminals are figuring ut whether anyone cares about your particular neck of the woods, the appearance of abandoned homes, abandoned factories, and vacant lots matters. We do not know exactly what the psychological mechanism is, but we can tell you for sure that these properties often become dumping grounds for others too.

This is not simply an aesthetic preference. Rodents and other pests love to hang out in such places, and the weeds and invasive plants enjoy such an environment too!

If your community has a large number of derelict property cleanup needs, you will need to recruit a large quantity of volunteers and some free use of suitable equipment. There is just no other way around it. Our checklist of equipment needs for a typical project includes garbage bags or containers, work gloves, brooms, shovels, hedge or edge trimmers, loppers, rakes, hoes, and protective gear if you think you will encounter poison ivy or another poisonous plant or snake. 

When prosperous communities are hit by a tornado, flood, earthquake, or hurricane, they mount a massive campaign to get all the debris together and then have the equipment lined up to transport it to an appropriate location. Often in neighborhoods that are a little more challenged, the projects tend to recur, resulting in cleanups in several different months every year.

If you have several neglected properties, or one larger one, consider it to be equivalent to a natural disaster, and give yourselves a sense of urgency about getting everything cleaned up at once. A slow tornado is how one respected activist described what had happened to his community over a period of years.

This mentality of "we must clean this up now so we can move on" is really helpful to community revival and investor confidence. We consider home owners and building owners to be investors too. Their lack of belief is what has led you to need a derelict property cleanup in the first place.

Of course you will need to seek property owner permission for cleaning up the neglected property. Sometimes you will encounter resistance, especially if you try to shame the owner. Occasionally owners who do not live on the property will be unaware of the actual extent of rubbish or overgrown vegetation at the location in question, and will think you are just being nosey. So use your best human relations skills to show that your intent is to be helpful, not to humiliate or pry into why the derelict property clean up has become necessary in the first place. If you are kind, often the story will be volunteered, especially after most of the project has been completed.

So make it a blitz if you have several derelict property cleanups facing your neighborhood. Perhaps you can organize at the beginning of the summer to take care of one property each weekend. 

If it is just one property keeping the neighbors in a complaining mood, then you can see a variety of tips on the abandoned homes page.

Now It's Up to You--Please Share!

If you are at all inspired to tackle your neighborhood’s cleanup needs as you perceive them, now is the time to start talking to neighbors that you think would have a similar viewpoint. Assess their willingness or unwillingness to “get involved” to figure out whether a cleanup project is likely to succeed. If you find even one more person who is willing to help, approach the best leaders in your area to see if you can sell them on the idea. If a leader seems somewhat reluctant, you can refer them to this website, or ask them to talk to other neighbors before they say no.

More often than not, you will find at least one leader who is enthusiastic. Now be smart about it, so don’t ask if this leader is in the midst of a stressful election or personal situation.  Just wait till a more opportune time, or try to find someone else.

The benefits really are worth the cost. 

We are asking you to tell us about your cleanup experience. It will help others have an easier time. If you have a question instead about how to organize, execute, or evaluate your cleanup, you can ask, and I will answer any question I am competent to address and understand. Use the form just below. Your question and my answer, or your cleanup story, will appear as a separate page on this website. You can be anonymous if you want.

At the very bottom, you will see links to the accumulated stories of people who know about a successful cosmetic makeover of a parcel of land or a building, or perhaps a disastrous attempt at one. Thanks for your participation.

Share Experiences or Questions about Clean-Up Projects

How did you go about organizing a clean-up activity? Or are you just trying to figure that out? In the form below, please either tell us about your clean-up of maybe a vacant lot, park, stream, alley, or other public place--or ask your question about how to do it. If you ask a question, I will attempt to give a helpful answer.

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