TRASH CRISIS IN CLARK PARK: What We’ve Learned and What’s Being Done About It

The ever-increasing explosion of trash in Clark Park has gripped the attention of park-lovers during the 2015 peak season. FRIENDS OF CLARK PARK has explored numerous ways of tackling the problem. Some showed limited success but the underlying issue – inadequate resources for park maintenance – has left trash at unacceptable levels.

At FoCP’s annual public election meeting in Griffith Hall on Oct. 19, officers and directors, members and other neighbors talked trash in great detail and outlined four different avenues to explore for serious relief in 2016.

It’s important to begin by understanding that park trash is complicated.

Trash in “C” Park, below Kingsessing Avenue, is collected by University of the Sciences, which leases that section of the park. Trash in “B” and “A” Parks, from Kingsessing to Chester and from Chester to Baltimore respectively, is primarily the responsibility of the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department (PP&R), but we all need to work together to deal with it.

PP&R hires one Seasonal Maintenance Assistant to maintain Clark Park and neighboring Malcolm X Park from May to October, and a different SMA for October to May. The winter SMA works fewer hours than the summer SMA. FoCP voluntarily supplements our SMAs’ pay to the tune of about $1,500 per year, but they report primarily to PP&R and are not subject to FoCP’s orders, although we do communicate with them.

SMAs chiefly work by themselves, under light, remote supervision. They don’t get paid much and have no benefits or civil-service protections.

The SMA picks up loose trash, adds it to the bags in trash cans, and removes all bags to the curb. From there they are picked up by a PP&R trash truck

In addition, some loose trash is picked up when the landscaping crews on contract with PP&R mow the park, but mowing schedules are flexible and some crews are better than others at collecting trash.

Neither PP&R’s nor Streets’ plans for trash collection at a particular site are tied to current data on the amount of trash that they are collecting. So if trash doubles in Park X over a few years, no City management system notices this and says, “We need to double our man-hours, double our pickups here.” Inertia reigns instead.

Everyday usage of Clark Park did almost double just between 2006 and 2012. From 2000 to 2015, it has likely at least quadrupled. Hard-won improvements in the park, coupled with an increasing number of attractive programs, a declining crime rate, and demographic and cultural changes, have turned it into a vital community center where thousands flock to or pass through, even at times in winter.

The number of organized large events with more than 50 participants has surged from 5 in 2000 to 29 in 2015. Some are quiet, low-impact events; others draw upwards of 500 people at a time, often eating and drinking. PP&R’s legendary Stewardship Coordinator Barb McCabe (who has just been honored and promoted) said it clearly this year: “Clark Park is at capacity now.” It has no room for new events and even old events may need to be reined in a bit.

Increased crowds, both organized and random, draw vendors – food vendors especially. They are providing a service park users want. But they are not paying their full share of costs toward maintenance of the park that is lining their wallets; and they are producing more than their share of trash.

Unless they are associated with a PP&R-permitted event, like the Farmers’ Market or an approved festival, or directly licensed as a PP&R concession (which none are), no food vendors may legally operate inside the park, on the street sidewalk in the park, or even alongside the sidewalk in the street.

Philadelphia is notoriously cheap when it comes to parks. For the last 40 years it has systematically starved its park budget, allocating one-third the public resources to their maintenance that other big cities do. This is not a universal problem but a local problem! The bottom line: more of Philadelphia’s current tax dollars should go to parks than now do; PP&R’s budget should increase both in absolute numbers and in relation to other City departments. PP&R gets no respect when the City Council and Administration allocate operational funds … and that must change.

But only citizens and voters can make it change. Park-lovers must demand more from our City. We must quit taking trash for granted.

But changing City government will take time. There are other avenues for park reform that we must pursue to clean up Clark Park – other paths that may deliver quicker, if limited, gains.

1) Better coordination of existing PP&R/Streets man-hours. PP&R’s Stewardship Coordinator shifted the SMA’s hours to include some weekend work, when usage and trash generation is heaviest. Now is there a way to get its trucks to come pick it up ASAP?

2) Volunteer extra work by large-event crews. They have always collected the trash in their area and left the bags by trashcans. But these trash cans are now often overflowing by Saturday, even before festival-goers arrive. They are turning into dumps. So we’re asking all festival organizers to haul all trash off site to a City facility as part of Saturday breakdown. They were willing, but this turns out to be illegal because all Streets trash facilities are closed to the public on weekends.

3) Volunteer work by FRIENDS OF CLARK PARK Members. We’ve organized large volunteer projects for many years. But good trash collection requires constant, careful, well-timed scheduling – and continuous recruitment of Members. So we’ll be asking for a show of hands on this project!

4) Hired work by FRIENDS OF CLARK PARK. There is a model for this: Friends of Rittenhouse Square. But our economics are not theirs. FoCP must first study its books and determine how much it can spend on cleaning services, after we determine its annual budget for necessary maintenance and promised projects. Then it should ask its members how much they want to spend.

5) Seeking help from Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s office. This is the normal place to go for a neighborhood problem involving city planning and resources spread over different departments.

6) Seeking help from University City District. UCD plays an auxiliary role in cleaning the park, including helping to fund the winter SMA. UCD contributes to mowing contracts (others are performed by PP&R) and can send backup trucks sometimes on an as-needed basis. A high-level talk between FoCP and UCD could kick-start a new pushbroom for the park.

7) Supporting park activists who lobby for the right green-space budget for Philadelphia. FoCP itself can neither spend its Members’ money on political campaigns nor endorse political candidates. But FoCP can help all friends of parkland, all who know parks are to the fabric of a good city life, help all to learn how better to fight for vital community resources like Clark Park. Everybody in the neighborhood should pull together as one on this cause!

8) Last but not least … if you see trash, pick it up!
If every time you walked into the park, you picked up one item of litter — and every other user did too — it would become a pleasanter place for you as well as others.

But please understand that this is a citywide struggle. West Philadelphia neighbors must work politically with other neighborhoods to hit all City Council Members with the message that all Philadelphians derive great value from their great parks.

FoCP is putting together an ad hoc committee to study and recommend the community’s best response to the trash crisis of 2015. We urge all concerned park-lovers to join this committee and make your voice heard! We’ll announce the time and date at least one month in advance.

If you follow our website (http://www.friendsofclarkpark.org) or our Facebook group page “Friends of Clark Park”, you’ll find out how you can help clean up Clark Park.

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