Alley Clean Up Important to Health, Safety, and Aesthetics

Last Updated: December 9, 2022

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.

overflowing dumpsters where alley clean up needed

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 clean ups 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 clean up 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.

Top Ten Tips for Alley Clean Ups

1. If the alley is not already the point of collection for household garbage, vegetation trimmings, and larger items such as appliances and furniture, strategize with your solid waste hauler or city government about how you might import a dumpster for the day of the clean up. Try to avoid having to pay for this, but if that is the only option and your block club or business district can afford it, it may be worthwhile to rent a container. Make these arrangements early for best chance of success in having the appropriate container delivered to you. If you already have large containers in the alley, think ahead about whether you will need overflow containers.

2. Invite everyone to participate, but especially make sure that any kids on the block feel valued and appreciated. Stress that everyone needs to bring their own work gloves. Prepare a half-page legal release by which participants will agree to hold the organizers of the event harmless from any injuries that might occur.

3. Have water on hand, if it's a warm day, or coffee for a cold one. A little snack for afterward or even a barbecue in someone's backyard makes the event more festive and leaves everyone a little happier about the hard work.

4. Soon after you schedule your clean up and distribute flyers door to door to let neighbors know, start a list of any equipment you will need, such as ladders, hand saws, or tree trimming equipment. Ask property owners if they own these things. If not, your park department might lend equipment or even lend a hand.

5. One variation would be to stage your cleanup day on one Saturday and then have a group garage sale or alley sale on the following weekend. It gives people an incentive to think further about the alley as a potential semi-public space that's worth keeping clean.

6. Use the activity as an opportunity to discuss problems or unrealized opportunities you see for your neighborhood. If you need a neighborhood crime watch, this would be a good time to organize one. Often if your neighborhood is sensitive to crime, people want to ignore the alley and tend to view it as a negative space rather than a potential asset. Truthfully, alleys can become fertile ground for car thieves, or but in our experience as city planners, we have seen lawn mowers, dogs, catalytic converters, and grills stolen too.

7. Sometimes the sweeping, weeding, and straightening needs to go a little further and extend to maintaining or painting backyard fences, garage doors, or maintenance sheds that front on the alley. Why not use the day to either encourage neighbors to make these investments in their properties or to help one another with these pesky projects?

8. If you need to form a block group or even a new neighborhood association, sprucing up the alley can start that conversation. Almost every place that is urban enough to have an alley needs a formal organization. (We have a page and e-book about starting a neighborhood association.)

9. There's no need to make lawn maintenance and elaborate gardening into a competitive spiral, leading eventually to households that really don't enjoy their back yards. A little friendly keeping up with the Jones  family is good for the neighborhood, but once it begins to become even a little bit serious, it could be time for someone who is a natural leader to call a halt. This competitiveness sometimes comes to the forefront on alley clean up day.

10. If you are thinking at all of re-purposing the alley, schedule a temporary one-day or two-day demonstration of what you have in mind, in order to get neighborhood comments and engage the city government. This would be similar to planning for a parklet, as described on our other page.

Below is a form where you can share your ordinary and extraordinary "before and after" photos, or your stories of what alley clean up did or didn't do for your block or the neighborhood. If we accept your story, which we will if it is understandable to others, it will be published as a web page that you can use in social media or publicity for your neighborhood. You can remain anonymous if you like.

Tell the World About Your Alley Clean Up

Have you done an alley clean up, or even converted your alley to a different use? Tell us how you assembled the crew, what you did, and your best alley clean up tips. Why did you do the project--safety, appearance, cleanliness, or other? Would you do it again? What advice can you offer?

If you have "before" and "after" photos, or either one, our visitors would like to see them.

What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see contributions from others.

City of Delray Beach Alleyway Cleanup Project 
Visitor Writes: The City of Delray Beach Public Works Department (Streets & Storm Water Divisions) completed our alleyway clean-up in preparations for …

An Alley Clean Up with a Purpose! 
I think a wonderful alley clean-up project would be to make it green! A friend of mine recently did this ( with city approval ) in a Montreal alley. The …

Click here to write your own.

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