Revitalizing Cities Through Grassroots Initiatives

In previous posts, we’ve talked about external drivers for urban redevelopment. (Check out how high-profile political meetings and mega-sporting events can accelerate change.) External forces may accelerate and highlight urban redevelopment initiatives. Still, the remarkable impact of initiatives like Refuse Refuse and other community-driven efforts are making a significant difference in city clean-up events and urban redevelopment campaigns. Grassroots initiatives are the consistent and sustained driver of revitalizing cities.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

Whether by an individual Girl Scout working on her Keep the Sea Plastic Free patch or a highly organized national organization like Keep America Beautiful, volunteers, residents, and community stakeholders donate thousands of hours to municipal clean-up initiatives. Today, we highlight and celebrate some of the success stories and extraordinary achievements of local grassroots programs on litter and illegal dumping.

City Aesthetics Impact Everyone

From visitors to residents and commuters, dilapidated buildings, littered streets, and neglected public spaces not only affect a city’s aesthetics but also profoundly impact the quality of life and work. A growing body of research focused on urban blight indicates that a reduction in illegal dumping and urban blight can have profound impacts on residents. For example, researchers at the University of Toronto found that “perceived beauty or aesthetic character of a location has a positive and significant effect on perceived community satisfaction. It is one of the most significant factors alongside economic security, good schools, and the perceived capacity for social interaction.”1 Studies have shown that cleaner, well-maintained neighborhoods tend to experience lower crime rates,2 higher property values,3 and lower rates of depression.4

Need help tracking and identifying priority areas for redevelopment? City Detect’s Blight Reports provide near-real-time data on your city’s built infrastructure.

Grassroots Efforts Make a Big Impact

Residents and stakeholders don’t need ivory tower research to tell them cleaner streets are better for their community. Charity Navigator lists over 1,500 community beautification nonprofits across the US. If we include neighborhood associations and community service nonprofits, there are over 10,000 nonprofits creating grassroots community change.

As the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas. In 1986 and 1987, the Austin, TX-based nonprofit Center for Environmental Education (CEE) launched the two monumental cleanup events. In 1986, the single-day coastal cleanup event attracted 2,800 volunteers and recovered 124 tons of debris.5 The 1987 event organized 7,000 volunteers to clean up 157 miles of Texas coastline. The volunteers collected 309 tons of trash in the single-day events.6 The overwhelming success of CEE’s initiative turned these Texas cleanup events into global, annual cleanup days. By 2017, the coastal cleanup event brought 800,000 volunteers from over 100 countries together to collect 20 million items of rubbish.7

While one-day events are certainly impactful, the daily activities organized by local grassroots activists support year-long efforts to activate, educate, and clean up cities across the country. From the Trash Academy in Philadelphia, PA to Refuse Refuse in San Francisco, CA, grassroots campaigns are taking trash talk to the next level.

A case study of revitalizing cities through grassroots initiatives: Refuse Refuse

Logo of Refuse Refuse - a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on revitalizing their city through grassroots initiatives

One shining example of grassroots innovation is Refuse Refuse in San Francisco, CA. Founded by Vince Yuen in 2021, Refuse Refuse began with a simple mission: clean up San Francisco. Their strategy involves community cleanup events, education, and activism.

Impactful Statistics

Founder of Refuse Refuse, Vince Yuen, proudly holding bags of collected litter. Text under the image displays their accomplishments since their founding in March 2021 (as of December 2023): 2057 cleanups organized, 505000 gallons of refuse collected, 11050 unique volunteers, 97 new organizations activated, 90 corporate cleanups organized, 50 schools engaged in cleanup activities, and 93 presentations of "SF Trash Talk"

Through hard work, a clear mission, partnership, and determination, Refuse Refuse has achieved remarkable results. In just three years, they’ve organized over 2,000 clean-up events with over 11,000 volunteers and collected over 500,000 gallons of refuse.

Looking for a partner to help with your data collection and reporting? Schedule a demo today.

The Power of Collaboration

Refuse Refuse partners with a variety of organizations, spanning governmental, nongovernmental, schools, for-profit, and non-profit entities. Some notable partners include San Francisco Public Works, TogetherSF, San Francisco Beautiful, Shine On SF, Friends of the Urban Forest, and SF311. Notably, 90 corporate cleanup events have been organized, 50 schools engaged, and over 90 educational talks given as of December 2023.

Best Practices for Municipal Success

Revitalizing cities through grassroots initiatives can end in discontent if not managed well. Fortunately, municipalities can benefit from best practices developed by grassroots initiatives and research on their success.

Partner for Success

First, dedication to partnerships and collaboration fosters larger short and long-term impacts. Collaborations are work and require a framework for communication. Monthly video conferences and quarterly in-person meetings keep everyone on the same page with upcoming events, co-creating and co-marketing initiatives, and long-term funding strategies that require community plans and resident buy-in.

Key to Behavior Change: Make it Easy, Fun & Cool

Second, behavior change takes time and investment. We are creatures of habit. Changing behavior takes intentional effort to educate and create opportunities to dispose of trash in appropriate ways. For example, consider partnering with home furnishing stores and websites to inform customers of their options to dispose of old furniture such as couches, beds, and other large objects. Leading up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar partnered with a behavioral insights group to design the solid waste infrastructure to capture and divert a significant amount of solid waste! While not many municipalities have the funds available to hire these kinds of experts, behavior change can be accelerated by making initiatives easy, fun, and cool.

Easy: lower barriers and friction to doing the right thing. Simplify rules, streamline processes, and add additional trash and recycling receptacles. (Recommended reading: The Human Element: Overcoming The Resistance That Awaits New Ideas.)

Fun: gamify waste management and create community competitions. Adding ‘fun’ can be as simple as repainting trashcans to look like basketball nets. Community and business beautification awards can also be a source of fun competition to bolster community and individual pride.

Cool: leverage positive social pressure to encourage proper disposal. Consider working with micro or nano social influencers. You don’t need to look far to find these influencers. They are the community grassroots organizations already working in the neighborhoods! Partner for success and interact with them in the street and online.

Ground Up Solutions

Third, listen to the priorities percolating from the grassroots initiatives. These initiatives are the foundation for building a larger movement and getting federal funding to support large-scale community redevelopment. A collaborative approach endows municipal government leaders with legitimacy, knowledge transfer, a wide range of possible community-developed solutions, and public support to see the project through to completion. 8


Refuse Refuse and similar grassroots initiatives highlight the power of city residents and stakeholders to create change. Code enforcement officers, housing authorities, and city officials can support this. Partnerships to lead major urban renewal efforts through building legitimacy and shared knowledge. Additionally, the community buy-in that comes with grassroots partnerships can accelerate the process of applying for federal funding to support redevelopment initiatives. These efforts can change our cities dramatically. Working together with community organizers and nonprofit leaders is key. It helps make our cities cleaner, safer, and more lively for everyone.

Sources & Resources

  1. Florida, R., Mellander, C., & Stolarick, K. (2011). Beautiful places: The role of perceived aesthetic beauty in community satisfaction. Regional studies45(1), 33-48. ↩︎
  2. Pizarro, J. M., Sadler, R. C., Goldstick, J., Turchan, B., McGarrell, E. F., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2020). Community-driven disorder reduction: Crime prevention through a clean and green initiative in a legacy city. Urban Studies57(14), 2956-2972. ↩︎
  3. Nepal, M., Rai, R. K., Khadayat, M. S., & Somanathan, E. (2020). Value of cleaner neighborhoods: Application of hedonic price model in low income context. World Development131, 104965. ↩︎
  4. South EC, Hohl BC, Kondo MC, MacDonald JM, Branas CC. Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health of Community-Dwelling Adults: A Cluster Randomized Trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Jul 6;1(3):e180298. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298. Erratum in: JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Aug 3;1(4):e182583. PMID: 30646029; PMCID: PMC6324526. ↩︎
  5. 1986 Coastal Cleanup Report ↩︎
  6. Texas Coastal Cleanup Report ↩︎
  7. Last month volunteers came together to pick up millions of items of trash from beaches (2018). World Economic Foum. ↩︎
  8. Vasconcelos, L.T., Silva, F.Z., Ferreira, F.G. et al. Collaborative process design for waste management: co-constructing strategies with stakeholders. Environ Dev Sustain 24, 9243–9259 (2022). ↩︎

Katherine Zobre

Katherine Zobre has ten years of professional grant writing experience working in Economic Development. She has experience with international, federal, local, and nonprofit grants. She also works with economic development agencies to create innovative programs to support equitable growth and support to underserved communities. She has an MS in International Development Studies from The University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Maryland. Katherine has lived, worked, and volunteered in 11 countries across 5 continents.