Wandle Restoration Part IX

Zero tolerance and the art of urban river cleanups

This month, let’s start our thoughts about rivers with a little word association.

What’s the link between a river full of rubbish, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the Big Apple, and an article in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly magazine?

If you’ve sat back, thought for a moment, and then said “something to do with Broken Window Theory”, I take my hat off to you, because you already know more than I did when I started writing this article about an hour ago. Because that’s when I went a-googling to check a half-remembered reference, and came across this:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”

In fact, this quote comes from “Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in our Communities” by George Kelling and Catherine Coles, the book which expanded on that original “Atlantic Monthly” article by Kelling and James Wilson in 1996.

But it’s still the perfect executive summary of the philosophy that Rudi Giuliani and his police chief William Bratton applied to cleaning up New York from 1990 onwards, cracking down hard on minor antisocial behaviour like littering, fare-dodging and graffiti-artistry to create an environment naturally inimical to more serious crimes like prostitution and robbery. Target the small stuff, goes the theory, and the bigger problems will also disappear.

It works for big cities. So would you be surprised to find it working for small rivers too?

Just by spinning my chair round, from where I’m writing this, I can look out of the window behind me and see the headwaters of the Wandle where I’ve been unwittingly testing this idea to destruction over the course of the last two years.

When I first moved here, it was pretty obvious that no-one had touched this hundred-yard stretch for many months – possibly years, ever since the Environment Agency took a mid-1990s concrete culvert and turned it back into a chalkstream from the substrate up. The first Wandle Trust cleanup netted a mountain of rubbish, from bikes to mattresses to council wheelie-bins, and at the end of that day I vowed I’d never let my own home pools deteriorate to such a state again.

Mostly, I’ve held to that. At least once a month, curious passers-by have got used to seeing a wadered-up weirdo spiking out cans, bottles, and “bags of trash from take-out restaurants”. I’ve dealt with shopping trolleys too, pushing at least one of them into the foyer of Somerfields, dripping and muddy, and presenting it to a shocked security guard. Once there was a safe and a clutch of three little girls’ bikes, all candy-pink, all in descending order of size. I tried not to think too hard about the implications of that one, but then the police weren’t too interested either.

To steal a line from the heir to the throne, it really is appalling how I can rely on filling my extra wheelie-bin (yes, that one from the mud under the bridge!) about once a month. It’s not OK, but I’m used to it. But when real life has occasionally forced me to drop my guard, the proper trouble has started. Here’s one simple sequence of events:

For the first couple of weeks, not much happened – just the usual collection of after-school crisp-packets and Ribena cartons. Then, one Friday night, a traffic cone appeared from nowhere, closely followed by an inevitable bike. Then, in rapidly accelerating succession, a kid’s scooter, a PC screen, a roll of carpet, three car tyres and a whole double bed – frame, pine slats, headboard, mattress and all – topped off with a plastic rifle, a cowboy hat, and a kitchen sink.

It’s true. If I had a photo, I’d show you. And I’m not proud of it, but I had to call another Wandle Trust cleanup for the occasion. So this is one of those marvellous self-fulfilling prophecies: the cleaner I keep my stretch of river, the less I actually have to muck it out each time.

Yob psychology, eh?

They’re such simple creatures, these toe-rags who think – if they think at all – that little chalkstreams were put on this earth to be their very own magic disappearing pedal-bins. When there’s rubbish in the water already, they’ll bust a gut to add to it. When there’s not, the idea will hardly even enter their tiny australopithecine minds.

Depending on the stage you’ve reached with your own river, your own ambitions may be big or small: a couple of black plastic sacks at one end of the scale, to a full-on multiple-skip-and-grab-lorry-extravaganza at the other, or even a combination strategy like my own. But let’s think big for the rest of this article. How do you go about organising a river cleanup for twenty or more people at a time – the sort of cleanup crew that the Wandle Trust fields regularly once a month?

From the very start, it’s well worth mustering the support of your local council – perhaps by introducing yourself to your Biodiversity Officer, as I suggested inAugust. With luck and a following wind, the council’s Waste Management team should be able to fund collecting the rubbish you’re planning to pull out of the river, by skip or grab-lorry, and taking it to a landfill or recycling site.

Naturally, your opening negotiations may take some time – and you shouldn’t be surprised if Waste Management start by playing dumb and trying to charge you up to £1,000 for a single weekend collection. Remind them politely that while they may not be formally responsible for what’s in the river, you’re doing their litter-collecting work for them, improving your local area in your own time, on a voluntary basis.

You’re paying their wages, too, so it’s time for them to stop hiding behind Health and Safely rules that stop them getting into the water, and start putting your council tax money where their environmental policy should be. Finally – if all else fails and even if it doesn’t – get on the phone and invite your Mayor and councillors-with-environmental-portfolios to join you for a river cleanup, along with a local press reporter. Apparently it’s amazing what a couple of well-placed stories and photos can do…

If you’re taking responsibility for a long stretch of river, or even one that spans several boroughs, you may wish to set regular dates for your cleanups: on the second Sunday of every month, for instance, as we do at the Wandle Trust. That way, everyone involved knows when to expect an event, and all they’ll need to know is exactly where to meet.

Make the most of the internet for your communications, starting with email updates, and progressing to a website when your project seems to need it. It’s easy to use mapping sites like www.streetmap.com and www.multimap.com to show your supporters where to meet – just choose the location on your own screen, then copy and paste that page’s web address into your email.

You can also register with the BBC’s Breathing Places listings section, and advertise your cleanup to other environmentalists who might never otherwise hear about what you’re doing. And although it may be possible to drive yourself through a full five or six hours in the river, most people won’t manage more than three or four before starting to flag. It’s better to plan for a shorter cleanup, and make sure they come back next time, than drive them into the ground and scare them off forever…

Now for the fun bit… the toys you’ll need for your cleanup.

After long experience of all conditions on the Wandle, I’ve worked out two lists – one for essential items, one for nice-to-have:

Essential cleanup kit

  • Protective gloves – red, available from all good DIY shops. The longer gauntlet version is useful for very cold conditions or particularly filthy mud.
  • Wellies – in a range of sizes for people who don’t want to get into deep water.
  • Heavy-duty rubbish sacks – biodegradable if possible.
  • Grapples and rope – essential for applying more-than-single-manpower to heavy rubbish. Look for yours at marine chandleries, and get two sets if you can. One attached to each side of a fridge or motorbike will help you balance and distribute the load.
  • Heavy forks and trenching shovels – excellent for digging round large objects. Get them with tubular steel shanks, not wood. Wood rots, and won’t last long as a lever (you may not mean to use your fork like that, but when your blood’s up, you’ll do it all the same).
  • Crowbars and other levers.
  • Sharps bin – for needles and dangerous shards of glass.
  • First aid kit – the in-car kits sold by stores like Halfords are ideal.
  • A Kelly Kettle or thermos – plus teabags, coffee and biscuits. Take a break halfway through the cleanup, and you’ll be surprised how much damage everyone can do in the “second half”. It’s a good selling-point for your event, too.
  • Insurance, and a Health and Safety strategy – both so important that we’ll address them with a full article next month.

Nice-to-have cleanup kit

  • Protective waders – with reinforced toes and soles. This is one situation where you should leave your Simms breathables at home (a sharpened microwave taught me that lesson).
  • Litter-pickers – very useful for grabbing light litter from impenetrable undergrowth or deep water. In time, you’ll learn there’s a limit to how far you can lean over without filling your waders.
  • Rakes – again, with heavy steel handles, for releasing silt and loosening compacted gravels.
  • Pruning saws, secateurs and garden loppers – for clearing fallen trees, branches and trailing briars that trap plastic bags and other rubbish. In the right places, close cover and large woody debris are invaluable. In the wrong places, they can be a menace.
  • Metal saws, bolt cutters and wire cutters – to save a lot of unnecessary wrestling with ironing boards and Vespas all wrapped up in washing line and phone cable.
  • Winches and tripods – very useful for multiplying muscle-power, literally lifting heavy rubbish out of gravel and silt that might take hours to clear by hand.
  • Dedicated transport and storage – to save all this malodorous kit being spread around your supporters’ cars and homes.

You’ll soon discover that some stretches of your water always need more attention than others, and I’ll be the first to warn you about easy-target areas just downstream from bridges, travellers’ camps and carpet warehouses, which will probably be places you’ll get to know very well indeed.

But in the end you can’t beat the satisfaction of a hard-earned pint after an afternoon’s resistance training, cleaning out your river.

So there it is: environmental zero tolerance for the waterways of the 21st century.

And it works, too. Well done, Mayor Giuliani. This theory was yours, long before we came along…

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