Since moving to Cedar Park in 2006, Mao Elliott has begun his morning the same way nearly every day.
He grabs two leashes and leads his chihuahua and lab mix to nearby Clark Park. Once there, he lets them roam free, off their leashes. Clark Park is the largest green space in the neighborhood, and Elliott said it is the perfect spot to sip coffee while his dogs run around without the strain of leashes. Any given morning, about a half dozen dog owners are letting their pets explore the bushes trees of the park.
But for Elliott, the park has never been truly perfect. He’s routinely been plagued by one nuisance: the trash.
“Trash is everywhere,” Elliott said. “Trash cans are overflowing, but it’s also just in the streets, on the sidewalks and in the park. The city barely seems to care and that makes the people around here care even less.”
He decided to take matters into his own hands —— literally.
Every time Elliott came to the park, he put on gloves and picked up trash himself. When he had time, he would organize larger groups to clean up. Although he was making an impact daily, the same levels of trash appeared each morning.
Until recently, that is.
“The last year or so, it’s just gotten better,” Elliott said. “I don’t know if the city added more people or what, but it’s definitely been cleaner. I don’t do as much.”
Although Elliott didn’t know it, he had the Friends of Clark Park to thank.
The group describes itself on its website as a “a nonprofit corporation and volunteer organization” that has worked to better Clark Park through the work of neighborhood members since 1974.
Carol Jenkins, a member of the Friends of Clark Park board of directors and a Democratic ward leader, said the group noticed the trash issues and took action. The first step was reaching out directly to the government.
“We had been nagging the city for quite a while,” Jenkins said. “They had known about the issues in Clark Park it was just a matter of funding and manpower.”
After unsuccessful attempts to reach out to the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation department, as well as the city’s sanitation branch, the Friends began organizing groups to pick up the trash themselves.
In the summer of 2018, Jenkins said the Friends used money from the organization’s own budget to hire private contractors to supplement the city’s regular pickup effort. The park looked cleaner, but it wasn’t a sustainable use of funds.
So, the Friends then began the Clean & Green campaign that raised funds from the community to continue the use of contractors. Public outcry turned to action and the 2019 extension of that campaign has raised more than $8,000.
“As a result, the trash was much, much cleaner,” Jenkins said. “At the same time, the city picked up their end of it too. That also facilitated things.”
CleanPHL, a city initiative created in order to reduce trash levels across the city, began a citywide survey of trash levels in 2017. That survey created the CleanPHL litter index which rates neighborhoods based on their trash levels on a scale of 1-4.
Using the Keep America Beautiful project’s index, a score of 1 means little or no trash, 2 means litter that can be picked up easily, 3 requires a team cleanup effort, and 4 requires a large effort including the use of heavy machinery.
“The trash situation has definitely improved,” Jenkins said. “I hope it just remains this way now and going forward. If it stays the status quo, everything will be fine.”
Some residents have speculated that the trash issue is a result of a lack of respect by the local residents toward the community and green space. Darcy Stafford, a Kingsessing resident of three years who frequents Clark Park, said she regularly comes across people who just throw trash on the street.
“We’ve seen people walking down Chester Avenue who just throw their entire Styrofoam to-go container over their shoulder,” Stafford said. “One girl threw it up over her shoulder but the wind caught it and fell on her. So she picked it up again and threw it over her shoulder. I couldn’t take it.”
Friends of Clark Park president Lisa McDonald Hanes was more forgiving in her hypothesis.
She said that most park goers were diligent in their intent to dispose of trash properly but routinely dealt with overflowing bins. As the local population increased and the natural beauty of Clark Park became an attraction for new residents, the numbers of visitors began to exceed that which the park could handle.
“In ecology, there’s a concept of carrying capacity,” said Hanes, who is a full-time landscape architect. “In a lot of ways, the use has ticked beyond carrying capacity of the ecology here. If you don’t mitigate that with maintenance and stewardship, you’re wearing out the ecology.”
The solution, Hanes says, is handling the traffic with increased attention and resources. It is not restricting the use of those who love the park.
“The beauty of Clark Park is that there’s a multitude of users with different perspectives and a multitude of uses,” Hanes said. “That’s what’s absolutely beautiful and amazing about this park. It’s like watching a crazy Dr. Seuss movie. You never know what you’re going to see.”
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