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Strong Towns

Spring Cleanup: A Classic Community-Builder


It’s official: spring is here! The first signs of green and maybe even some early blooms? Check. Birds returning from their migration and a welcome increase in daylight? Check. 

Litter that has accumulated over the winter encased in snow and mostly out of sight…until now? Double check. 

While spring has many lovely sights, not among them is all the garbage in our public spaces, carelessly discarded at some point and now revealed as the snow and ice melt away.  

It’s true. The sight of litter strewn about our streets, parks, and back lanes is anything but pleasant. But it does give us the opportunity to care for our places in a surprisingly simple and straightforward way, with a humble spring cleanup.

I’ve noticed that spring cleanups are a fairly universal community action that occurs nearly everywhere. Across North America, they’re spearheaded by community groups, schools, business improvement districts, and politicians. In my city, a newcomer couple who came to Winnipeg after war broke out in their home country of Ukraine organized a spring cleanup “as a way to give back to Manitobans who’ve welcomed refugees from the eastern European country.”  

Why Do Community Cleanups Work So Well?

Why do spring cleanups succeed so reliably? Obviously there are environmental and aesthetic benefits. But they go so much deeper. They’re a fairly accessible activity for people of all ages and abilities to take part in. While typically not all that enthusiastic about picking up messes at home, kids tend to LOVE community cleanups. Cleanups don’t require a long planning process or ongoing time commitment to take part in—just an hour or two. And they don’t require much in terms of costly resources.

Still, it’s an afternoon of cleaning up garbage. The weather isn’t always great, you’re doing a job that is pretty gross (and sometimes even dangerous—think broken glass, needles, etc.). But, you’re doing it with other people who care. And you get immediate, encouraging results. 

Oddly enough, having all the litter in their faces doesn’t seem to make folks grumpy. Instead, you hear people laughing, talking, observing. I still remember chuckling with a fellow participant upon discovering what seemed like an inordinate and never-ending number of Q-Tips strewn about the lane (it was funny and also kind of gross…and, I guess, also quite memorable). 

A cleanup is one of those increasingly rare occasions where you might find yourself working side by side with someone who you have nothing at all in common with, except for where you live. This isn’t a small thing: being able to get along with, and maybe even find common ground with, people whose lives, interests, and values are very different from our own has never been more important. 

The sight of a team of people out working to clean up the neighborhood also sends a powerful message to those who aren’t participating. It’s not uncommon for folks to pop their heads out the front door (“I didn’t know this was happening!”) and offer profuse thanks to the cleanup volunteers.

The Nuts and Bolts

When our neighborhood association does spring cleanup, we publicize the date, time, and meet-up spot a few weeks ahead of time. We prepare a list of street, back alley, and park assignments and stock up on garbage bags and some gloves (though we do ask people to bring their own gloves if they happen to have them). On the day of, people show up, pick an area from our list to focus on cleaning, and then head out in groups. 

Perks are nice, but not necessary. We usually provide some light refreshments like bananas, granola bars, and water (along with hand sanitizer to clean up before eating) as a little pick-me-up at the end of the event. Some years, we’ve been able to borrow some claw-style “pickers” that make picking up garbage a little easier for those of us with achy backs or knees. (Kids absolutely love them, too.) 

A spring cleanup can be a truly free event to organize, by having participants bring their own bags and disposing of litter along with their own household waste. That said, the councilperson or other elected official in your area may be able to provide supplies or a small grant to cover costs, or be able to connect you with organizations that can help.

We’ve been lucky to find some great spring cleanup partners along the way. Our city parks technician has been a wonderful resource; she’s often been able to dispatch a city crew to come and pick up all the bags of trash from a designated drop-point. Other times, a neighbor with a pickup truck has offered to take the bags to the dump. We’ve also had help from Take Pride Winnipeg!, a local civic beautification non-profit, who often provide us with supplies (like bags and gloves) and have even donated prizes for us to raffle off! 

It’s Not Just About Litter

The thing about a spring cleanup is that it’s not just about the litter. On a deeper level, it’s about paying attention to the condition of your corner of the world. It’s an opportunity to notice what is happening in your neighborhood. The people who show up to a cleanup event might even be some of your biggest allies; they’re the people ready to give their time to improve their place. 

A spring cleanup is a quick win. It’s one of the easiest, cheapest, and most accessible community events anyone can organize. And while the lovely spruced-up look will inevitably fade after a few months, it doesn’t mean the effort was a waste of time—far from it! With regular repetition, community cleanups build something that’s lasting: a sense of commitment, pride, and place attachment.

Spring Cleanup, Spring 2024, Strong Towns, Community, Could Apopka have a Spring Cleanup Event?


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