Be careful what you wish for. Like many citizens, I cheered when Mayor Kenney first announced that regular street sweeping would begin this year as a pilot program in select neighborhoods. Philadelphia would no longer be the only large city without this basic service.
However, as more details of this program emerged, I became more concerned about it. Instead of requiring parked vehicles to move off the streets they wish to clean, the city will have teams of workers armed with leaf blowers to blow trash and dirt into the middle of the street, where a mechanical street sweeper would then pick it up.
Being rather skeptical of this plan, I headed to West Philly to attend the press event and demonstration at the launch of this pilot program. A truly apocalyptic scene was displayed. Streets Department employees without breathing or hearing protections blew clouds of dirt, dust, and debris into the air. Years of untouched litter and grime aerosolized and entered our eyes and throats.
While it is good to see the city prioritize services in underserved communities, now is the time for the city to stop this peculiar leaf blower program and implement what every major city in the United States does: Consistent, citywide curb-to-curb mechanical street sweeping.
The urbanist political action committee for which I volunteer, 5th Square, and I have identified four major problems with the city’s street sweeping pilot program:
Air-choking equipment: Gas-powered leaf blowers are incredibly dirty and inefficient. Operating a leaf blower for one hour emits the same amount of pollutants as driving to Tampa Bay. Because of this environmental impact, many cities and counties across the U.S. have banned or restricted the use of leaf blowers. The city should not be gassing our streets with teams of employees all using this inefficient tool.
Airborne street grime: The city use these blowers to blow street grime into the air, onto our cars and stoops, and into our lungs. This caked up street grime consists of a dangerous mix of chemicals, pollutants, and lingering bacteria that no passerby should breathe in. A public records request by 5th Square found that the city’s Health Department “does not monitor or measure” the blowers because they are mobile and have small engines, making it impossible to gauge the full impact of this program on our air quality.
Environmental justice: These uncontrolled airborne pollutants will negatively impact the health of our city’s residents, particularly children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory problems. Five of the six neighborhoods the city has decided to test try this program are in the top quartile for resident asthma rates. Philadelphians in these communities deserve proven and effective solutions, not a testing ground for pilot programs resulting in health risks. Cleaning in this manner is also damaging to the lungs and ears of those implementing this program when they are, by the city’s own admission, not wearing proper protection.
It is ineffective: The 10 street-sweeping trucks that the city bought for close to $3 million are unable to get down our narrow streets without cars being moved. Additionally, for streets with caked-on debris, due to the presence of parked cars, the street sweepers’ mechanical brushes can not clean these problem areas.
The city’s rollout of an untested, dirty, and inefficient “leaf-blower” program to blow trash around our streets is ill-conceived. The pilot program is up for review in November. We want the city to change course and give its communities what we want: consistent, citywide curb-to-curb mechanical street sweeping. We need to shake off this moniker of “Filthadelphia,” and this leaf-blower program is hurting more than it’s helping.
Dave Brindley is an organizer/volunteer with 5th Square and lives in Walnut Hill, West Philadelphia.