Mayor Lee P. Brown

Partnerships Are the Way to Build Clean Neighborhoods

Launched in June of 1998, the "Houston Clean Neighborhoods Program" was developed as a comprehensive strategy to combat litter, graffiti and illegal dumping. Its focus is on enforcement, education, cleanup and beautification projects that enlist the ongoing participation of local area residents, businesses and civic groups.

The management of the Clean Neighborhoods Program involves a cooperative effort between Everett Bass, Director of the City of Houston's Department of Solid Waste Management, and Robin Blut, Executive Director of Keep Houston Beautiful.

Project Approach

Keep Houston Beautiful (KHB) is a 20-year-old nonprofit organization with a successful track record of working with local businesses and leading Houston corporations to clean up and beautify various areas of the City. KHB was awarded a $277,500 contract by the Houston City Council for the Clean Neighborhoods Program, and was given the responsibility of organizing the community leadership, developing the action plans, conducting outreach, and implementing the program in partnership with the Department of Solid Waste Management.

To tap the expertise and resources of various municipal organizations, as well as to ensure coordination among the many City agencies that have jurisdictional responsibility for litter control and related neighborhood issues, a Clean Neighborhoods Task Force was established with representatives from all 16 City departments, plus three other governmental entities. The City departments included: the Department of Solid Waste Management; Neighborhood Protection Division; Houston Police Department; Planning and Development Department; Mayor's Anti-Gang Office; Public Works Department; Parks and Recreation Department; Municipal Courts; Neighborhood-Oriented Government; Neighborhood to Standards; Fire Department; Health Department; Mayor's Citizens Assistance Office; ROW-Public Works Department; Street Maintenance, and Neighborhood Protection Division/Public Works. The other governmental entities were Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation and METRO (Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority).

The management of this Task Force involves a cooperative effort between the City of Houston's Department of Solid Waste Management and Keep Houston Beautiful.

The Clean Neighborhoods Program was created to improve the litter situation in all the target areas, to motivate neighborhoods to initiate cleanup and community improvement projects, and to establish a sustainable leadership base whereby the City and neighborhoods could work together in the future to solve litter and related issues.

Six neighborhoods in Houston were selected as target areas. Three of these -- Old Spanish Trail, East End and Northeast Houston -- are inner-city, residential neighborhoods, whose residents are predominantly minority and lower-income. The other three target areas -- Fulton Avenue, Main Street and the Richmond-Hillcroft area -- are heavily traveled transportation business corridors.

Building public-private cooperation and financial support for the Clean Neighborhoods Program was largely the responsibility of Keep Houston Beautiful, who solicited monetary or in-kind contributions from a number of private organizations to leverage the City's investment in the program. In addition to its partnership with the City of Houston, Keep Houston Beautiful worked with a wide range of business, civic, and neighborhood groups to enlist support and volunteers for the program.

Organizing and Training Community Leaders

A major focus of the Clean Neighborhoods Program is to develop effective neighborhood leadership. Key to this effort is the recruitment and training of community leaders and volunteers. Keep Houston Beautiful had become proficient in training and organizing community leaders and volunteers in various areas of Houston. For example, for eight years Keep Houston Beautiful has been working with a network of community leaders and volunteers in the City's Fifth Ward, one of Houston's oldest neighborhoods, to coordinate the annual "Keep Five Alive" neighborhood improvement projects sponsored by Conoco, including home repair, painting, cleanup and landscaping projects. Based on the success in the Fifth Ward, several years ago Keep Houston Beautiful launched a similar project - "Be True To The Trey" - in the City's Third Ward. Keep Houston Beautiful was able to put the knowledge it gained from these projects to good use in connection with its work on the Clean Neighborhoods Program, and this was a critical factor in getting the new program up and running.

To kick off the Clean Neighborhoods Program, Keep Houston Beautiful and City personnel conducted two leadership workshops, and invited key representatives from all six target communities to participate, including members of local civic clubs and others who were known to be active in the neighborhood. These key participants were then asked to invite other stakeholders in the community to participate, including religious leaders, school principals, major business owners, and managers of apartment complexes.

During these initial meetings, KHB and Department of Solid Waste Management staff explained the goals of the Clean Neighborhoods Program and discussed the kinds of community improvement activities that could be undertaken. The community representatives were asked to identify neighborhood problems and suggest potential solutions. "The community members who attended these meetings were very supportive of the program," said Alyce Coffey, Senior Community Service Liaison to Clean Neighborhoods from the City of Houston's Solid Waste Department. "Once we had identified the high-priority issues and agreed upon the scope of work, we worked with the representatives from the target neighborhoods to schedule Clean Neighborhoods workdays."

Additionally, Keep Houston Beautiful conducted 96 community-planning meetings in the six target communities, to work with residents to develop neighborhood-specific "action plans" including cleanups, tree planting and other beautification efforts, graffiti paint-outs and school-based education programs. These leadership and community planning meetings began in September of 1998 and continued through May of 1999, and covered topics like community-organization techniques, litter laws and regulations. Residents also learned how to plan their own cleanups, and how to work through Keep Houston Beautiful to get technical assistance, probationer work crews and the use of City equipment.

Keep Houston Beautiful also created a Clean Neighborhoods Handbook as a self-help tool for community organizers. The handbook was distributed to those who attended the leadership training meetings, and was used during all Clean Neighborhoods community-planning meetings. The 100-page handbook contains information about community organizing, recruiting and maintaining volunteers, and sample media and neighborhood outreach materials.

Litter Collection and Neighborhood Beautification Programs

Clean Neighborhoods Program cleanups and community improvement projects began in October of 1998 and continued through July of 1999. A total of 21 cleanup and beautification workdays were held. Community leaders and volunteers in the six pilot neighborhoods, assisted by Keep Houston Beautiful staff, the Solid Waste Department, other City personnel, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, conducted the actual collection of litter. They worked with City crews and used City equipment to clear illegal dump sites and undertook a variety of neighborhood beautification activities including landscaping and tree and flower planting. Graffiti removal projects were also conducted, and murals were painted over some of the most some heavily graffitied sites.

Litter and Attitude Assessments

For the Clean Neighborhoods Program, "litter" was defined to include intentionally and unintentionally discarded trash on streets and sidewalks as well as illegally dumped building materials, heavy trash, yard waste, and discarded tires.

For each of the six pilot neighborhoods, "before and after" measurements of litter were conducted using Keep America Beautiful's "Photometric Index," which is a procedure for measuring changes in litter accumulation. Litter accumulation was measured along streets and rights-of-way, as well as in parking lots and vacant lots and around dumpsters. Keep Houston Beautiful performed the Photometric Index together with several community volunteers.

Keep America Beautiful's "Windshield Survey" system was also used to direct cleanup activities. Keep Houston Beautiful staff and community volunteers rode in vehicles around the designated cleanup areas in each pilot neighborhood, and rated the litter condition of streets, ditches, vacant lots, parks, school grounds and business properties as either excellent, good, fair or poor. The Windshield Survey provides a general indication of the cleanliness of a community, and helps to identify badly littered areas and determine where cleanups and other resources should be targeted.

Finally, a new Keep America Beautiful methodology known as the "KAB Litter Index" was tested in the six Clean Neighborhoods pilot communities, as part of KAB's national research program to develop a new litter assessment and measurement technique. In April of 1999, a group of 17 community and business volunteers were driven through the six pilot neighborhoods, and each assigned a "1," "2," "3," or "4" score to a total of 50 sub-areas within the communities. These scores correlated to a scale of "no litter," "slightly littered," "littered," and "extremely littered."

Opinion surveys were also conducted in two residential neighborhoods, Old Spanish Trail and East End, to gauge public awareness of the Clean Neighborhoods Program, of Keep Houston Beautiful, and to determine how residents assessed the litter situation in their own neighborhoods. Nine basic questions were asked of 300 residents in "before and after" phone polls, on topics including: residents' knowledge of which City agencies are responsible for litter control and of existing municipal regulations and ordinances; residents' opinions of the types of locations, or of specific areas in their community that have the most serious litter problem; residents' opinions about the garbage collection service in their neighborhood, and residents' own efforts in the area of litter abatement.

These four different assessment techniques were used to help properly target litter abatement activities and measure the progress of cleanup, beautification and other Clean Neighborhoods Program initiatives.

Communications, Educational and Enforcement Activities

A number of communications and educational activities were conducted by Keep Houston Beautiful and the City of Houston to make citizens aware of the costs of littering and other negative consequences, publicize various techniques to abate litter, and recruit neighborhood volunteers for activities.

To communicate the "Clean Neighborhoods" message, press conferences and other media events were held; banners, signs and flyers were prominently displayed; slide shows were developed to recruit volunteers, and "business walks" were conducted to obtain pledges from store owners and commercial tenants to keep their sidewalks and surrounding areas clean. An educational 12-page newspaper supplement about the Clean Neighborhoods Program was distributed to over 600,000 Houstonians. A new campaign theme -- "When We Get Going, Things Tend To Get Carried Away" -- was carried on 30-second radio spots, and in TV and newspaper public service ads.

To help integrate Clean Neighborhoods Program messages into classroom learning, Keep Houston Beautiful staff trained 75 elementary school teachers using Keep America Beautiful's Waste in Place and Graffiti Hurts curricula. In addition, more than 4,000 students took part in the 1999 Little Kids' Litter Party, Keep Houston Beautiful's and the City's annual Earth Day celebration and litter-awareness event, held in conjunction with the Houston International Festival.

The Clean Neighborhoods Program also focused on stepping up enforcement of laws and regulations related to illegal dumping and other litter violations. A joint effort was developed among Keep Houston Beautiful, the Houston Police Department, and inspectors from the Department of Solid Waste Management and the Neighborhood Protection Division of the Public Works Department. This effort involved both "carrot" and "stick" aspects.

The "carrot" approach included the positioning of free dumpsters in selected locations, to provide a convenient alternative to illegal dumping and in the belief that it costs the City far less money to empty dumpsters on a regular basis than to clean up illegal dumps. Specifically, Keep Houston Beautiful staff, the Department of Solid Waste Management and community representatives identified known dump sites in two of the target neighborhoods (East End and Northeast Houston). In each, two 60-cubic-yard dumpsters were strategically placed for disposal of unwanted goods. Neighborhood representatives have now adopted these containers, and they notify the Department of Solid Waste Management when the dumpsters are full. Since the beginning of the program, the dumpsters are being emptied once a week on average, and the areas around them are cleaner.

For the "stick" portion, City personnel, Keep Houston Beautiful staff and neighborhood volunteers mounted a coordinated attack on illegal dumping as follows:

  • Community volunteers patrolled the target neighborhoods on the lookout for violations such as illegal tire dumps, open storage of junk vehicles, dumping of construction or demolition debris, and improper placement of yard waste. This information was then forwarded to the relevant City personnel to issue citations as appropriate.

  • Teams of police officers called Differential Response Teams (DRTs) -- who have been trained to use nuisance violations and other code infractions as a way to deal with (and in some cases, head off) more serious violations - were deployed in the six target neighborhoods. These teams were established in 1995 because the Houston Police Department recognized that environmental nuisance violations correlated to increased criminal activity. DRTs develop strong community ties to assist in identifying local litter problems and other quality-of-life concerns. Many of the DRT officers attended civic meetings to give the audience follow-up reports on how problems in the community were being resolved.

  • Inspectors from the City's Department of Solid Waste Management issued warning and citations to neighborhood residents and others who have improperly disposed of trash on public rights-of-way.

  • The Neighborhood Protection Division of the Public Works Department, which enforces nuisance, litter and other violations on private property, issued warnings and citations for violations including dilapidated housing, accumulations of litter, junked automobiles and overgrown weeds.

Clean Neighborhood Results

Volunteer recruitment successful

Approximately 11,600 individuals participated in some aspect of the first year of the Clean Neighborhoods Program, including 3,100 people who participated in workdays, 6,100 students, 75 teachers who were trained and 2,200 community members who attended planning, training or other neighborhood meetings. Also, 62 businesses signed pledges to keep their areas clean.

Keep Houston Beautiful leveraged City investment with private funding

KHB received a $277,500 grant from the City of Houston to provide management, volunteer recruitment, training and other services. The Metropolitan Transit Authority provided $9,500 of in-kind services, for a total City investment of $287,000. Keep Houston Beautiful leveraged the City's investment by obtaining an additional $164,000 worth of volunteer services, private-sector donations and in-kind services of about $293,000, for a total of $457,000. Thus, the benefit to cost ratio obtained was $457,000/$287,000, or about 1.6.

Six pilot neighborhoods cleaner

According to "before and after" Photometric Index measurements, most Clean Neighborhoods target communities were cleaner at the end of the one-year pilot program than they were at the beginning. Improvement was most evident for streets, rights-of-way and parking lots, with more mixed results shown for vacant lots and dumpsters. As a result of the Clean Neighborhoods Program, 1,300 cubic yards of litter were removed, 434 City blocks, 264 bus stops and nine parks were cleaned, 1,264 tires were collected, 27 illegal dump sites were eradicated, and 61 trees and 1,240 flowers and shrubs were planted.

A potential new KAB measurement tool, the "KAB Litter Index," showed promise when tested during this pilot program, and will be further developed.

Public awareness of litter control issue increased

The public opinion phone surveys conducted in the Old Spanish Trail and East End neighborhoods indicated that knowledge of litter-control activities increased as a result of the Clean Neighborhoods Program. These surveys also revealed that the City's garbage collection service received high marks, and that abandoned houses and buildings and vacant lots are perceived by residents to be the biggest litter-related problem in their neighborhood.

Year Two Funding Approved by Houston City Council

Recently, the Houston City Council approved funding, again in the amount of $277,500, for the second year of the Clean Neighborhoods Program. For year two, the City's contract with Keep Houston Beautiful emphasizes the training and supporting of neighborhood groups.

During the first year of the Clean Neighborhoods Program, significant progress was made in three of the six pilot neighborhoods in developing community resources and leadership that could maintain community improvements and would undertake ongoing neighborhood cleanup and litter-prevention initiatives. However, three of the 1999 Clean Neighborhoods pilot communities (East End, East Houston, and Old Spanish Trail) are not quite ready to stand on their own. During the second year of the program, Keep Houston Beautiful will continue to work with all six neighborhoods, and more extensively with East End, East Houston and Old Spanish Trail, to continue developing neighborhood leadership and a volunteer base in order to establish self-sustaining community-improvement programs.

In addition to the six original pilot neighborhoods, two additional residential neighborhoods and another commercial corridor will become part of the Clean Neighborhoods Program during FY 2000. The new neighborhoods that have been selected are the Fifth/Second Ward and Houston Gardens; the commercial corridor is the Gulfton area. These three neighborhoods were selected, in part, because they have also been included in the Department of Solid Waste Management's new "One Call" pilot program, which will be rolled out in the year 2000.

For more information, please contact:

Everett Bass
City of Houston Department of Solid Waste Management
P.O. Box 1562
Houston, TX 77251
Phone: (713) 837-9158
Fax: (713) 837-9110

Robin Blut
Executive Director
Keep Houston Beautiful
2700 Post Oak Blvd., Suite 1728
Houston, Texas 77056
Phone: (713) 621-7020
Fax: (713) 621-3823

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