Cleaning Up Your Neighborhood Park A Plus

clean lake in park

We highly recommend cleaning up your neighborhood park as a first project for a group that would like to become more active in their community.  The time commitment for each individual except the organizer is minor.  Volunteers can see the results within a couple of hours, and the entire community enjoys and comments on the success for a few days. The beauty of this activity is that it can recur year after year, and managing the event becomes easier every time.

We should note that this page does not address problems of drug use or sales, prostitution, or petty thefts in parks. If you have those issues, you will need to see the safe parks page or the Crime Prevention section in the navigation for this site.

We should mention too that if your local community park has a major problem with littering or overgrown vegetation, you may have to repeat the cleanup weekly, every other week, monthly, or twice a year to get things under control. Be encouraged that both research and our experience show that littering decreases as a space becomes more tended. You should be able to decrease the frequency of cleanup events in the future.

To prepare for the type of cleaning up your neighborhood park that we are discussing on this page, you will need to plan to have the right equipment available. You also need to have enough volunteers and an easily understood game plan, so that your workers can arrive at 8 or 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and be finished before lunch.

Cleaning up your neighborhood park is a great project for new and experienced neighborhood associations alike.  

The quick win is a great way to engage new people in community work, and the active outdoorsy element of the project attracts people who do not want to come sit in meetings.  

A second major advantage to this type of project is that it is easy to incorporate children and youth; at age 3 and up, they can pick up trash. Teenagers can be drawn in, especially if you provide a good-looking T-shirt that passes their fashion test. Teens and pre-teens will be especially adept at sharing your cleanup on social media too, which is a real plus for your neighborhood association or informal group.

Try to attract several young muscular volunteers. Cleaning up your neighborhood park is ideally suited to getting teenagers and young adults excited about community work, and their energy is a real bonus in comparison with the middle-aged and senior population who fuel many of the other neighborhood association or block unit activities. This is a terrific project for grandparents and grandchildren to share, by the way.

Planning the Cleaning Day: What to Do in Advance

First and foremost, begin to recruit volunteers.  Having a very rough idea of how many volunteers you will have helps you make wise decisions about priorities.  To boost recruiting, take photos of any problematic area of your target park. 

Remember that people attract people, so you will want to provide a way for people who plan to attend to identify one another on social media.

Then for inspiration, if you are trying park clean-up for the first time, you may want to circulate an inspirational video about the value of parks, such as the National Recreation and Parks Association's The Power of Parks.

If you have several parks or your chosen location is large, decide on priorities for cleaning up your neighborhood park. It would be better to finish in an hour and a half and give everyone an opportunity to socialize than to tackle a much too ambitious project and leave people feeling unsuccessful at the end of the morning.

Approach your town or city government to see if they can remove the trash. After all, the government that owns the park should keep it spotless, but the reality of tight budgets is what makes cleaning up your neighborhood park a citizen imperative in many towns and neighborhoods.

If your solid waste collector is a private company, you may need to ask the company directly. Often they will be helpful, especially if they receive positive publicity in the community.

Most local governments will be surprised at your interest in cleaning up your neighborhood park and happy to assist. If not, then your first concern must be where and how you will dispose of what you collect. In most instances, you will be astounded at how much trash there is.

Plan for as much recycling and waste reduction as possible. After your group becomes expert at planning and executing the semi-annual clean up, consider asking a group of artists to attend to pick up items that can serve as found objects in artwork. 

If there are no recycling containers ordinarily found in the park, but your town distributes them to residents or businesses, see if they can be temporarily stationed at your park.

Publicize this event to the community at large, unless you intend this to be a committee project. Even then, consider inviting other neighbors, in order to build buy-in for cleaning up your neighborhood park on a periodic basis.

If you have a neighborhood newsletter, publicize the clean-up well in advance. Be sure to mention this event in your social media as often as appropriate within the framework of your general social media policy.  By the way if you have no social media accounts but have been intending to establish some, the cleanup is a good way to begin and will give you some wonderful photos to share.

Think of an intriguing event name if you can. Clean, Green, Lean, and Mean is more exciting than Spring Clean-Up. In smaller towns, your local newspaper may give you plenty of free publicity.

Advise volunteers to bring their own work gloves. In case they don't, have extras on hand. Sanitation is a concern, and even though many park systems don't allow glass containers, they seem to sneak in and get broken there anyway.

Figure out how to provide water, if there are no fountains in the park. It's greener to bring some large coolers instead of buying individual plastic bottles of water.

If the weather might be cold, think about whether you want coffee and hot chocolate. You can always have some fruit or pastries if you want to reward your workers.

Paved areas, such as sidewalks, trails, plazas, or tennis or basketball courts, will require some push brooms. Again, your municipality may be a good source of some tools that can be borrowed. In a pinch, a household broom is better than nothing.

If you intend to trim shrubbery or trees, of course you will need appropriate tools. If the park includes a stream, you will want to advise people to wear boots if they have them. Then a few people can get in the stream itself, if conditions are appropriate.

If you plan to clean restrooms, specialized cleaners will need to be gathered. Rakes are helpful in some situations.

Be aware that if you intend to tackle graffiti, you will need some specialized advice on how to remove it. Your local hardware store may have some ideas. Large cities may have graffiti removal teams. But often graffiti is best tackled by simply painting over it.

Have a few minor first aid supplies on hand, and of course bring cell phones in case of any injuries of consequence. Discuss insurance and liability with the local government or homeowners association. You probably will have to ask folks to sign a waiver of liability for injuries. 

At the Park Clean-Up

Greet each volunteer warmly and put him or her to work very quickly. The longer people have to wait to be shown where things are and what should be done, the more awkward and apprehensive they become.

Explain to each person clearly where the trash collected is to be placed, and remind him or her not to create more litter while sampling the refreshments. Caution people to be careful with glass and metal.

Often people seem more comfortable working in pairs, and if the area feels at all remote or dangerous, actively encourage this pairing off.

Remember to take photos of all the collected trash and to focus in on any unusual items. If all the trash will be placed in dumpsters or bags as you progress, you may have to take several photography tours to capture your results. 

Respect all volunteer efforts, and try not to criticize the results. In a park, if people spend more time joking around than working, you have to respect that too. Chances are that any trash removal or any attempt at trimming or cleaning will be an improvement.

Explaining the Benefits of Cleaning Up Your Neighborhood Park

As you notice people taking a momentary break, engage them in a conversation about why it's important to keep the park tidy. If you have a respected elder who comes to assist with cleaning up the neighborhood park, but you notice that he or she can't really keep up the pace, this task might be partially delegated to them.

Remind volunteers that all types of users should be able to enjoy the benefits of cleaning up your neighborhood park.  But also explain that this event is a symbol of the neighborhood's determination to maintain high standards in every way.

A park is public space, and cooperating to take care of something that belongs to all of us is a way for people in the community to meet each other and start new friendships. It also builds community spirit.

As people leave, thank them profusely for their efforts. If your organization has any nice give-away items, this would be the time to bring them.  If you plan for future events that include cleaning up your neighborhood park, mention it at this time. Encourage them to talk to others about the park and to talk with children about the importance of cleaning up the neighborhood park on a regular basis.

After the Neighborhood Event

Return borrowed equipment, clean up after the clean-up crew, and if any town or city employees are present, be sure to thank them again. They may have sacrificed a bit for your event as well. Make sure that all solid waste is placed where you were told to put it.

If you have good quality photographs, post them on social media early and often. Try sending them to your local press too.

I like the picnic lunch finale for cleaning up your neighborhood park, but certainly you can dispense with that if you can't afford it, if there is no place for hand-washing in advance, if you sense that people can't spare the time, or if your work crew is likely to be tired and cranky at the end of the clean-up.

Lastly, if this is an autumn event, start planning your spring clean-up as you disperse, or vice versa. Almost any viable neighborhood group can manage this twice a year.

But don't overdo it. That's why I encourage a morning-only event. Weekends are so busy in most households that you will be much more successful than if you request a whole day's work.

So get started with the planning. This is an easy event, as events go, providing your town or solid waste company does the heavy lifting of carrying away what your volunteers pick up.

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