Sunday 17 December 2017

Terry Prone: Time to follow lead of our cleaner north inner city on litter

Litter on the streets of Dublin
Litter on the streets of Dublin

The minute you mention the word "litter" the glaze lowers over the eyes of Dubliners like one of those metal shutters coming down over a shop window at closing time.

It seems at once trivial and irritating and somehow inevitable - while actually it's none of the three.

It's not an inevitability, despite our city generally coming badly out of the latest Irish Business Against Litter (Ibal) survey.

It's important to point out that not all of the capital did badly in that survey. The north inner city, which has fared poorly in recent years, came out rather nicely this time, showing an improvement worthy of mention by the organisers. And proving that litter in Dublin is not inevitable.

Nor is it a trivial irritation. Litter is part of the loss of a neighbourhood's self-respect, part of a wider surrender to lawlessness and community contempt.

Just as failure to take care of personal hygiene speaks to a deterioration in the sense of self in humans, failure to take care of city housekeeping speaks to a deterioration in the sense of belonging, which is one of the most basic needs.

But that's to put it negatively, and great improvements in quality of life are never achieved by negative thinking.

The north inner city is showing all of Dublin a chink of light, sending out a "let's do this" message about litter. All credit to everybody involved.

And it's not the only chink of light.

Have you ever heard of Pruitt-Igoe? This was a disastrous high-rise housing project in the US city of St Louis, which started amid high hopes and gave rise to so much murder, mayhem, drug-addiction and terror that, before it was dynamited, sociologists moved in with clip boards and questionnaires to try to work out why it had become such a horror.


One of the simple, forehead-smacking insights the Pruitt-Igoe researchers gained was that an area that belongs to everybody belongs to nobody.

Think of allotments. Each is owned by someone - by one individual - for the duration, so they compost it and weed it and love it.

That's in sharp contrast to verges and stretches of green space near roundabouts and motorways, which everybody in theory owns and which in reality nobody owns - which is why they are filled with tossed-away drink cans, stretches of torn plastic, bottles and whatever you're throwing away yourself.

When people, whether collected together by neighbourhood or business, "adopt" a street, a garden or a little park, littering goes down.

That seems to be because everybody feels responsible and ordinary folk pick up a wrapper that's been abandoned, rather than assuming it's the job of someone employed by the local authority. Seeing that happen changes the attitude of potential litterers.

In this regard, one of the great pioneers was Disneyland. From the very first, the Disney organisation trained every staffer to notice anything out of place and take care of it, rather than ignore it and hope someone else took care of it.

Applied to litter that created a positive culture of personal responsibility. Visitors to Disneyland got the subliminal message that littering just wasn't good. So they did much less of it.

When it comes to litter, negative action can pay off. Nobody in Singapore throws chewing gum in the street, partly because chewing gum is illegal, but also because they have a speedy arrest and conviction system and an approach to punishment which is robust. In some instances they have flogged offenders.

Let's not go there. Seriously, let's not go there. Let's create a sense in our beautiful city that it belongs to us and that, just as we wouldn't throw a burger box in our own front garden or on our little balcony, we shouldn't throw it in a public street.

Let's abandon the learned helplessness that allows people to blame everybody else while slithering an empty sweet packet out of the car window when the driver hopes nobody's close enough to see what they're at.

Let's learn from the north inner city and see if we can spread the good news that litter matters and can be prevented.

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