“We Live Here.” Communities design installations to stop dumping and reclaim their neighborhoods

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A few years back, a paint store on Torrance St on the Northeast side of Flint, MI closed down.

There’s a small alley between the store’s old building and a vacant lot. Before the store’s closure, trucks used that alley to make deliveries. But now, it’s prime real estate for dumping. 

“Torrance is a side street. It’s very dark. It’s secluded, so it makes a very convenient place for people to come and dump their trash,” says Clarence Campbell—a member of Genesee County Land Bank’s Clean and Green program. 

“My goal is to keep it maintained and try to help people know that this isn’t just a place for them to dump their garbage. It is part of a neighborhood, people live here,” Campbell adds. 

Clean and Green is a Flint, MI-based program operated by the Genesee County Land Bank. Residents, like Campbell, work with Clean and Green to regularly mow and remove trash from vacant lots every couple of weeks throughout the growing season. Despite Clean and Green’s efforts, the dumping persists—adding hazards and hurting the morale of residents participating in the Clean and Green program.  

Now, that is beginning to change.

In July 2021, the Grace Community Christian Fellowship Clean and Green group—with support from the CDC-funded Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center—placed four tons of boulders on the perimeter of the vacant lot and a camera near the alley to deter illegal dumping. 

A photo of clean-up and boulder installation as a dumping prevention measure at Torrance St.
Adjust the sliding arrows to see the before and after

“I was very excited to have this implemented because we’ve talked about doing something like this at various locations in the past and so it’s good to see it finally come to fruition.”

“The boulders definitely make it more difficult to get into the area,” says Campbell regarding the intervention on Torrance Street. “Once someone sees a camera, it discourages them from doing anything illegal or unethical.” 

“And the neighbors love it,” Campbell adds. “Several neighbors came out while we were installing the boulders. They were very thankful and appreciative to see something being done because they don’t like looking at that debris from their porch.”

The need for solutions  

Illegal dumping is not isolated to one vacant lot in Flint, MI; it happens all over the country. Dumping is especially prevalent in cities that have experienced a significant loss of manufacturing jobs and population. The high number of vacant properties left behind makes communities vulnerable to neighborhood disorder, including illegal dumping. 

The effects of illegal dumping on communities are extremely detrimental. Vacant properties with overgrowth, litter, and debris such as food waste or abandoned cars can attract pests, create environmental hazards, undermine neighborhood health and contribute to social isolation. 

Trash-strewn and overgrown vacant lots hurt communities.

Fortunately, vacant lot maintenance is a known path to mitigating the harms of deteriorated lots and can benefit communities more broadly by improving mental and physical health, deterring crime, and fostering community connectedness.

Two organizations—the Genesee County Land Bank in Flint, MI, and Camden Community Partnership in Camden, NJ—spend substantial time and money improving vacant properties and lots. While these locations have differences, both communities experience persistent dumping and norms that tolerate it.

Despite their efforts, preventing dumping is a daunting challenge.

“Once, on a public street, someone dumped a 55-gallon drum of an extremely hazardous chemical right at the curb near a park within the city,” says Keith L. Walker, Director of the Department of Public Works in Camden, NJ. “It was placed next to a storm sewer drain, and if the drum was punctured, it could have impacted the potable water quality,” Walker continues.

To reduce health risks, the Department of Public Works has five sanitation inspectors. “We try to abate the impacts of illegal dumping as quickly as we can, as well as stop illegal dumping altogether within the City of Camden,” says Walker. The inspectors investigate sites and work with stakeholders and residents to determine a course of action to identify the cause and to remove the waste.

“It was important to get residents more involved in the process to foster a sense of ownership,” says Walker.

The City of Camden spends $4 million each year responding to illegal dumping incidents. In 2019 alone, they removed 7,000 tons of illegally dumped material. 

The process is tedious and frustrating. A sanitation inspector at the Department of Public works says, “our work is constantly repeated. As quick as we cleaned a site up, within a couple of weeks, there’s another dumping [incident] that we need to deal with.” This cycle is a drain on resources, stunts progress, and ultimately undermines the sustainability of revitalization efforts.

The landscape in Flint, MI is similar. 

“How would I describe the lots? They need help,” says a Land Bank maintenance crew member. “It’s always an area where there are no lights. It’s always an area where there are no residential homes. So people can get away with dumping. These sites are prime, perfect targets, year after year after year. The Lank Bank was already cleaning these sites, but we only have so many people and so much time to clean it up.”

The City of Flint issues thousands of code enforcement tickets for dumping incidents each year. Yet, enforcement capacity is limited due to budget and capacity constraints. Many lots are hidden from street view, making it additionally challenging to identify people dumping.

Collaborating to identify low-cost, easy-to-implement solutions 

The Genesee County Land Bank and Camden Community Partnership both needed innovative interventions to address dumping. In the summer of 2019, these organizations met at a three-city learning exchange hosted by the YVPC. With guidance from the Center for Community Progress—the leading, national technical assistance organization focused on revitalizing vacant property–the groups discussed dumping challenges and strategies they had tried so far to stop it. Strategies included establishing reporting hotlines and pursuing stricter fines.

The Land Bank and Camden Community Partnership concluded they needed more data and evaluation to better understand the problem and identify practical solutions. Inspired by the findings of learning exchanges, the YVPC distributed funds to Flint and Camden to pilot test strategies to deter illegal dumping on sites around their communities. The pilot project leveraged local knowledge gained through years of experience combatting dumping in Flint and Camden. 

A photo of two team members at 28th & Adams (Camden, NJ) following a camera Installation.
28th & Adams (Camden, NJ) – Camera Installation

In previous years, installing lighting and public art on the vacant lots helped reduce dumping in Camden, NJ. Both lighting and art can help bring a sense of ownership and community pride to the site. On one site in Camden, residents beautified a dumpsite by painting illegally dumped tires and planting flowers in them.

“They really took out the negatives of illegal dumping and made a positive out of it,” says Orlando Munoz, Chief Sanitation Inspector at the Department of Public Works.

In previous years, Flint residents had also attempted to install barriers to prevent dumping, but resources to implement these solutions were limited. With evaluation support from YVPC, both organizations hoped to identify low-cost strategies that would support residents’ goals for maintaining vacant properties and could move the needle on the problem of dumping.

Piloting an intervention in Flint, MI, and Camden, NJ

In Flint, Land Bank staff worked closely with Clean and Green groups to identify several sites that had severe, persistent dumping. “We gathered feedback from around 60 [Clean and Green] groups about their preferences for interventions,” says Melissa Hertlein, a community planner for the Land Bank. “Residents brought up ideas such as trail cameras, log slices, vehicle barriers, boulders, split rail fences, and more.” 

“We ultimately took all of that [the intervention options], and put it into a survey and asked all of our Green & Green Groups their preferences,” Hertlein continues. “We decided if the respondents believed that a specific intervention was both aesthetically pleasing and something that would prevent dumping that we would use it in this project.” 

In New Jersey, Camden Community Partnership worked with both the city government and residents to identify lots and solutions. 

“Two years ago we were working on a large project on illegal dumping,” says Vedra Chandler, a Community Events Planner. “And we were able to do interventions on some ‘hot spot’ sites in the City, and we implemented interventions in some of them. But, our regret was that we could not do more of them.” 

With funding from the YVPC, the Camden Community Partnership was able to expand the reach of their previous intervention. Chandler details, “We asked the sanitation task force at the Department of Public Works for a list of sites that they had to clean up frequently due to illegal dumping. From that, we were able to identify lots that had the highest numbers of visits. But we also asked residents to weigh in on what lots they thought were the most pressing to address. “Through this process, we narrowed down the list from 30 to 5,” says Chandler.

Similar to Flint, Camden Community Partnership sent a survey to residents asking them to rank preferences for the intervention. 

“It was important to get residents more involved in the process so they feel they have some kind of ownership,” says Walker. 

The team used lights, cameras, boulders, dumpsters, and public art as key parts of the strategy. 

The theory behind this is simple: place boulders on the borders of vacant lots so people who want to dump can’t drive their vehicles onto the property and easily dump waste; and paint murals, place lights, and install cameras to instill a sense of positive ownership and increase accountability.

Beginning on June 19th, 2021, eleven chronic illegal dumping sites across the city of Flint, MI, and five sites in Camden, NJ launched their dumping installations. 

Initial results are promising 

The YVPC evaluation team conducted interviews with residents who were part of Genesee County Land Bank’s Clean and Green program to gauge the early effects of the dumping prevention strategies. 

“The boulders are working. We have not had any more dumping in those lots for three cuts now. And we mow every three weeks,” says Deb Hamilton, a Clean and Green leader and resident involved with greening lots on Cecil Dr. “I think the cameras and the lights are deterring dumping because I don’t think people want to be videoed or photographed.” 

Regarding the intervention on Baltimore Street, Clean and Green member Wanda Coleman says she hasn’t seen much dumping since they installed the boulders.

“I also think the cameras stop people from dumping. If one person got caught dumping on camera, I’m quite sure that they put the word out to others to warn them not to dump in that area because there’s a camera and they could be fined [if identified],” Coleman explains. 

Due to supply limitations, many boulders were smaller in scale than initially planned. Although many interviewees and residents voiced disappointment with the size of the boulders, they seemed to work—regardless.

The Land Bank team learned a lot about how to install the interventions in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.

The intervention technique in Camden was similar to that of Flint—cameras and lights were also installed on vacant, repeat dumping sites. In Camden, however, murals, signs, and even large sculptures were used as well. For example, at one lot a large trash-collecting robot was installed, and at another a larger-than-life cat sculpture equipped with a decoy camera.

One resident told Melissa Frankil, a program manager at Camden Community Partnership, that the murals “make it feel more like our neighborhood.” 

Adjust the sliding arrows to see the before and after

Leaders at both agencies say that resident engagement increases community buy-in, builds capacity, and promotes sustainability.

“We want to allow residents to take back their neighborhood,” says Frankil. “We took the approach of making community-oriented decisions. We want residents to see things that make them think the neighborhood is theirs, and not just a place to dump on.” 

Looking forward, the Genesee County Land Bank and Camden Community Partners hope to expand the implementation of these dumping prevention strategies to more vacant lots across Flint, MI, and Camden, NJ. Through the interviews, we were able to identify room for improvement, too. For example, the team may explore ways to give the intervention—namely the boulders—more curb appeal.

This is a project update from the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center.

This illegal dumping prevention pilot study was funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U01E003382).