By Ryan Castellano
“Yeah, wow, this really has to change,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso, the chairman of the City Council Committee on Sanitation, validating months of work that began with a student asking if we could do anything about litter. When the class of seniors at the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick chose litter as their focus issue, my concerns were evident: how can we use civics to solve this problem when the root cause is most likely just carelessness?
However, in researching the issue I came across something very strange. The Mayor’s Office of Operations keeps a Scorecard to measure litter in each Community Board district. Inspectors drive around classified routes and measure streets and sidewalks from 1.0 to 3.0. Under a 1.5 is considered “acceptably clean”, and each month they release the percentage of streets that are acceptably clean in each district. The Office of Operations claims to use these numbers to identify areas that need increased sanitation resources, but there is no evidence that there actually is any flexibility in how these resources are allocated.
A major reason why this lack of flexibility exists quickly became clear: the acceptably clean ratings for each district are all incredibly similar. Every neighborhood seemed to have percentages between 80-90% of acceptably clean streets, whether the rating was for Bushwick, which was clearly full of litter, or for a cleaner neighborhood like Greenwich Village. In the same report from 1995, districts regularly ranged anywhere from 16% all the way to around 90% – but this level of variation no longer exists in the city’s reports.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, our class was able to request the raw data for the last month’s report for their district. While we took numerous pictures of streets that matched perfectly with a 2.5 rating, not one rating out of the 300 in the report had been given a 2.0 or higher. I learned that the city blocks are broken into sections and the scores of each block are averaged. Each block is often re-rated a few times each month and then re-averaged. Through this process of averaging, the dirtiest section of a block rated on any given day could be watered down by so many cleaner ratings that the whole route would be deemed acceptably clean.
Clearly we had found the root cause of the issue. The standards of the city have remained unchanged since they were created in 1973; so outdated and flawed in methodology that they badly misalign with public perception of the problem. Without identifying where the problems are, the city is left blind and unable to efficiently allocate resources. As a result, the students in my class wrote letters to their community board, their city councilman Antonio Reynoso, and to the media. They talked to Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna at Civics Day. They debated in class how to force the city to fix a flaw, when the flaw itself incentivizes a resistance to change—by making the city appear more successful in curbing litter than it actually is.
The students’ efforts finally paid off, as Councilman Reynoso recognized the problem and has pledged to bring it to the attention to his fellow policymakers. It will be run through a policy analyst, then brought to the Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and other City Council members who have come to Reynoso about street cleanliness.
I could tell from the first time I stepped off the subway at Myrtle-Wyckoff that litter was a major problem in the community, but I have to confess something. There was a moment during this process when I began to second-guess everything. How significant can the problem of litter really be in students’ lives? I mean, people aren’t tripping over it, right? The students’ newfound passion for solving the problem answered these questions for me. Their community is their identity. When students see continuous piles of trash along the curb in front of their school, they see a school that means less to their city. Bushwick runs through the students’ veins and they want to take pride in it.
This spirit of community pride is what action civics means to me. It is about being the ones who take action to better the communities that we love. The students of Bushwick stepped up to create a change that they want to see every day when they step out of the front door. And some day, we will be proud to know that a broad reform with the potential to clean up the city was started by a classroom of our students wanting to do something about litter in their neighborhood.
Read more about this class’s project in this article for the Gotham Gazette.
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