One Man’s Trash

This year I celebrated Earth Day by joining one of  a number of events around the world for the environmentally-conscious people. My family, team members and I walked the streets of town, exploring hidden and ignored areas along train tracks and harvesting the left over cigarette butts that decorate our sidewalks. In the end, we felt rather accomplished–  filling more than twenty bags and rescuing a couple of abandoned tires. Sadly,  so much more remained to be done. In fact, we could have probably made every day earth day–literally– and still found garbage to fill our bags.

While much has been written about the environmental impact of litter– the damage it does to animals and soil — and probably to us humans more than we imagine (I’m pretty freaked out about microplastics at the moment), I want to weigh in on what neighborhood garbage tells us about the neighborhood itself and the relationships in the community.

It turns out that the presence of visible trash is something that has been studied by neighborhood researchers in a variety of ways. Some researchers have described litter under the construct “neighborhood disorder”– with trash visibility being a key component of “physical disorder”– along with other indicators being grafiti, abandoned cars and vacant lots. Quinn and Colleagues even mapped this level of disorder in NYC to show how neighborhoods differ from one another. Physical disorder is indeed a remarkable and tangible indicator that may help us describe and measure neighborhood-level differences that could correlate with socioeconomic indicators and community investment, but what impact does physical disorder have on neighborhood residents?

Neighborhood disorder is associated with:

While more research needs to be done, it appears that there does indeed exist the hypothesized relationship between neighborhood physical disorder (again of which visible trash is one component) and other adverse outcomes. It is important to note that these studies are correlational in nature. No one has conducted, to my knowledge, a randomized control trial in which one neighborhood is littered and/or another cleaned up. Such a study would be unethical and impractical. The implication here is not that visible trash causes child obesity or erodes neighborhood trust, but that the two are significantly related. It cannot be stated which leads to the other, nor can we take this all out of context– and inter-neighborhood variation is certainly a factor — as may be culture, setting and historical elements.

A related concept to neighborhood disorder is “neighborhood neglect”.  A Google search for the word “neglect” turns up a verb and a noun. The verb is “to fail to care for properly” and respectively the noun is the “state or fact of being uncared for”. Outside of this context, the word neglect is most often used in reference to children. We have a clear picture of what it looks like for a child to be neglected– having inadequate food, clothing, affection, stimulation– and we know the profound impacts that a lack of these investments can have on a child in the near and short term. These effects can have debilitating consequences that accumulate over the years and lead to tremendous so many challenges and deficits as the child grows.

How might this concept of neglect apply to neighborhoods? It is rather paternalistic/maternalistic to think of our neighborhoods as children dependent on care from some larger body, but in some sense this is true. Each neighborhood is nested within multiple municipal, county, state and national contexts each with varying degrees of jurisdictional responsibility and control. We can find countless examples of how governing bodies in a city or town have diverted resources away from neighborhoods for any number of political reasons. Too many places have focused on the tax break for the new industry while ignoring the deteriorating infrastructure on the other side of the tracks. And, of course, there are more active forms of abuse– dumping of toxic chemicals, building highways that sub-divide neighborhoods, cutting of public transportation — that have more direct effects on the lives of those in the community. It is important to note that care or neglect processes are grounded in history — with the current state of places often the accumulation of decades (or more) of an attitude and practice by those in power– an attitude that becomes part of the community ethos and is grounded in the worst of racism and discrimination– the kind that can become internalized and replicated by those who suffer from the conditions and the effect thereof. There is clearly a need for neighbors in these contexts– with their advocates — to challenge long-standing norms, policies and budgetary decisions that disadvantage their communities in favor of others.

Beyond challenging the powers that be, there is so much that neighbors can do each day to move their settings from disorder to health. Neighborhoods are made up of residents with a degree of agency that cannot be understated. People have the ability, despite neglect from those in power, to come together, to take pride in the place they call home, to build the bonds of neighborliness and to –yes– pick up some trash. In future posts, I want to draw attention to efforts like these in various neighborhoods, but for now I want to share with you one amazing idea.

In Philadelphia, the East Kensington Neighbors Association came up with a creative way to address litter in their neighborhood. Calling it Kensington Cans, they worked with local artists to decorate trash cans, turning them into a piece of art that enhances the neighborhood and, hopefully, draws attention.

I think this is a remarkable example of what neighbors can do by coming together. It didn’t require millions of dollars

Visible trash in neighborhoods is a big issue and one that isn’t going away easily. It is often grounded in decades of neglect and abuse by those in power. These larger issues should not be ignored. At that same time, change can begin at a grassroots level when neighbors band together to create small wins that lead to big things– one abandoned tire at a time.

What are you doing to reduce physical disorder in your neighborhood? Add your comments, ideas and questions below!

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