July 18, 2017

For outsiders, Los Angeles may conjure images of film sets and movie stars, but the city’s 3.8 million residents have been living a far less glamorous reality. In neighborhoods across the city, sidewalks have teemed with debris and illegally dumped trash, abandoned couches on street corners, and hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage have been piling up along the city’s alleys and vacant lots.

For the past three years, the city has been taking on the trash issue head-on, and hiring FUSE alumnus Mark Thomas was part of that effort. In June, one of the solutions that Thomas worked on, the CleanStat Program, was recognized in the 2017 City Livability Awards Program by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was awarded first place honors.

Garcetti’s CleanStat Program is a digital tool that provides data on the cleanliness of Los Angeles city streets and alleys. CleanStat uses quarterly, block-by-block cleanliness assessments of the entire city to build a bank of useful data to identify where the trash is accumulating. Based on that information, city staff can glean the contributing factors to impacted areas, and decide what resources to deploy.

Here’s a preview of how it works:

US Conference of Mayors – City Livability Awards – Los Angeles – CleanStat LA from GVI on Vimeo.

Thomas’ fellowship began in 2014, with the help of then-City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana and then-Assistant CAO Robin Engel, who were instrumental in bringing the project to life. At the time, Thomas, a former deputy director of a think tank who had developed economic strategy for New York, had just finished an MBA at MIT, with a focus on global competitiveness and city-based innovation. The goal was for Thomas to gain a holistic view of the problem, then form a plan to clean up the city’s neighborhoods using a coordinated approach that engaged both communities and stakeholders. He had one year to do it.

Understanding the Full Picture

Los Angeles has more than 100 neighborhoods, and Thomas went to all of them, meeting with locals and capturing their stories and photos of trash. He saw alleys so choked with garbage that residents couldn’t use their garages anymore, thousands of bulky items left abandoned on city sidewalks, and encampments of homeless people living among trash.

Thomas also met with dozens of civic and community groups and interviewed leaders from a wide range of city agencies — the Department of Public Works, the mayor’s office, the city attorney, the LAPD, and more — gathering perspectives and learning about which departments and outside entities were involved in keeping the city clean, down to the smallest detail. “Part of the process was learning where we were, what it’s supposed to look like, and then finding, one by one, all of the disconnects,” Thomas said. Much of what he found wasn’t new: There was a lack of coordination, a lack of education and outreach, and a need for more resources. But then he had a realization that reframed the whole conversation about trash.

Los Angeles was originally designed to be a more suburban city, but in 1970s, there was a push to convert many of its single family homes into multi-family buildings. As a result, the population exploded far beyond even the boldest development projections. The city’s present-day population maps show tremendous demographic density. Some neighborhoods have more than 90,000 residents per square mile; only New York City and San Francisco have higher density levels. L.A.’s Koreatown is the densest neighborhood in the country outside of Manhattan.

When Thomas overlaid these maps with the various sanitation services provided in the neighborhoods, the volume of trash he was seeing on the streets started to make sense. The city’s services were not keeping up with its booming population. When he started reporting this back to city leaders, he could almost feel a new understanding click into place. “The big thing that hit everybody is that we have a system for keeping our city clean that was designed in the ’70s and we have a population that’s double that size today,” Engel said. “The city grew, but we didn’t adapt to it. Our systems just weren’t geared for a modern L.A.”

The city’s street-sweeping program didn’t map to its highest trash-generating areas. South Los Angeles — an area with 800,000 people — maintained just 52 public trashcans. Exacerbating the issue was the city’s reliance on residents to report illegal dumping through the 311 system. L.A. has the highest percentage of renters in the US, many of whom move into their neighborhoods assuming the status quo is the status quo, and weren’t motivated to make a change.

From Plan to Action

The next step was to convert the insights and inputs that Thomas had amassed into an action plan. He researched best practices from across the country, looking for ways to bring more modernized, data-driven approaches to L.A.’s trash problem. He studied “bright spot” initiatives already being piloted within Los Angeles, including several already implemented. And he continued to capture, consolidate, and refine ideas from civic leaders across the city.

Thomas presented a list of top ideas for cleaning up the city to a group of municipal leaders, a subset of whom then worked together with Thomas to further hone the ideas into recommendations. In May 2015, they released their official report, “Improving Livability in Los Angeles,” which outlined 10 recommendations to improve the city’s cleanliness, either by expanding existing services smartly, adding new capabilities inspired by other cities’ best practices, or launching initiatives designed to activate residents’ sense of civic responsibility and community pride.

The recommendations were highly pragmatic. One recommendation, for example, was to develop a cleanliness rating index — which more that 80 U.S. cities already have — for assessing conditions on every Los Angeles street. L.A.’s Office of Community Beautification already has a similar rating system to monitor graffiti and its removal that could be expanded in this new direction. “All we had to do was tweak it a little bit,” said Kevin James, president of the Board of Public Works. “It made me realize that I could really put hands around this trash issue, and that we could be data-driven and efficient in solving it.”

What’s more, eight of the 10 could be fully implemented for less than $10 million a year — twice what the city was already spending on the problem but still a modest sum for a city with a $9 billion operating budget.

In 2015, Mayor Eric Garcetti led his State of the City address with the trash issue, announcing plans to add 5,000 public trashcans to city streets over the next four years. The mayor also took another one of the recommendations — to develop and launch a comprehensive “clean and pride” pilot campaign that targets users of the city’s services and programs — and pushed it one further.

Other results that came out of the fellowship were the Clean Streets L.A. Initiative, and CleanStat, which was at the center of the Mayor’s Conference award mentioned above; a vastly improved and dramatically more responsive 311 system for reporting all sorts of items on streets and sidewalks; and a more robust Volunteer Corps with a clean neighborhood component.

Kevin James believes Thomas’s presence was key to the program’s success. “Having a dedicated resource really expedited the process. It provided the jolt that the issue needed,” James said. “At the end of the day, we got a very thorough clean streets initiative that is a terrific collaboration among city departments and bureaus—and a partnership between the city council, the CAO’s office, and the mayor’s office that is impressive.”