Five years ago, when we started the urban farm I worked at in Baltimore, our planning focused on the traditional agricultural concerns of planting crops, purchasing compost, figuring out water access and writing grants. We never realized how much focus we would need to spend on the trash. I live in Kentucky now, but on a recent visit to Baltimore, I visited our farm and found the same empty liquor bottles and plastic bags that have been repeatedly been an issue at the farm.
Cleaning up the trash has been one of the most important factors in our urban farm’s relationship with the neighborhood. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future write:
“The benefit of bringing regular attention and activity to a formerly vacant lot was commonly mentioned as a way to stop trash dumping, loitering, and illegal activity that may occur on the lot,” according to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
In other words, your urban farm’s appearance is essential for maintaining community support.
Unfortunately, keeping your new lot clean may not be as simple as hosting a few community clean-up days. Although we’ve hosted dozens of volunteer days to pick up trash, it’s been very difficult to stem the constant flow from small-scale contractors who are used to dumping their loads of construction debris and junk in the vacant backyards next to the farm. Some neighbors continue to set out loose trash bags in the alleyways, which end up torn apart by rats, spewing old potato chip bags and Styrofoam takeout containers across the farm. Passersby see the trash already on the ground, so they toss empty liquor bottles into the tree wells at the front of the urban farm.
Here are some of the successful methods that have helped us navigate our trash problem and thoughts on how we can continue to fix the endless tide of trash in all of our cities. The solution is going to have to be multi-pronged and will require just as much energy as pulling weeds.
1. Call The City
At the neighborhood association meetings we attended, city officials always recommended that neighbors call 311, the city’s non-emergency hotline, to report illegal dumping. Even if it seems like the illegal dumping is endless, it will help to have a record of reports for dumping hotspots.
2. Unite With Community Members
Attend your neighborhood association meetings or other city council meetings to engage your neighbors with the work you’re doing at your farm to help combat illegal dumping. Our farm hosted a community barbecue, which included food made using produce from the garden, and we used grant funding to provide trash cans and recycling bins to neighbors. The city’s Department of Public Works had an educational outreach table at the event.
3. Fence In Your Garden
Putting up a fence can be a weighty issue for urban farmers. Some might be concerned that a fence is perceived as a barrier that keeps out the community, while others might support a fence as a way to prevent vandalism and trash from coming into the garden. Before you start your urban farm, have a discussion with all parties involved to decide whether having a fence might be an option.
4. Hire Dumpster Services
Cities are often burdened by the financial costs of dealing with illegal dumping around the city. Your urban farm might consider hosting a fundraiser or writing a grant to support purchasing a private dumpster service, such as Bagster to supplement the limited resources of the city’s trash services.
5. Host Community Clean-Up Days
Community clean-up days are a great way to engage neighbors in the positive work that your urban farm is doing in the neighborhood. Contact volunteer groups and schools to engage neighbors and students in community-service events. Pass out the glove and trash bags, and get started!
6. Post Artwork
Engage students and neighbors to create beautiful signs for your urban farm to raise awareness about illegal dumping and promote use of trash cans, recycling and composting.
7. Reuse The Trash
We have used the some of the trash around us as a resource to build infrastructure at the farm, such as using bricks from torn-down buildings to build walkways.
The trash issue requires patience and a community of support. If you are beginning an urban farm, do not underestimate the coordination and expenses that will be needed to tackle the trash on your vacant lot. We hope these ideas help you to get your vacant lots green and clean.