By Sara Hoover
Memphis, five-time winner of the nation’s cleanest city award, may eventually add
a sixth honor in that category with the help of the University of Memphis.
The U of M teamed up with Clean Memphis to get communities more involved in keeping
their neighborhoods clean and to help map out zip code initiatives — zones used to
break the city into manageable sections.
Clean Memphis is a nonprofit that divides Memphis into zones and enlists the help
of neighborhood residents and other community partners to systematically clean up
litter and blight with the aim to make Memphis once again the cleanest city in the
The partnership began in 2008 when the U of M’s Center for Community Building and
Neighborhood Action did a problem property survey of every residence in Memphis.
“We had been doing research for quite some time on blight, what causes neighborhoods
to go down and foreclosure,” said Dr. Phyllis Betts, director of the Center. “We started
the Neighborhood by Neighbor survey. The idea was also to involve neighborhood groups.
We had handheld computers and a training program for the groups. Once we were involved
with the neighborhood groups and Clean Memphis was interested in action projects in
neighborhoods, then we heard about each other.”
Dr. Phyllis Betts
With mutual interests, the two organizations got together. Since the results of the
survey showed where blight was clustered, including environmental dumping and excessive
litter, Clean Memphis used the data to select its priority areas.
Aaron Cregger, a master’s student in urban anthropology, worked as an intern for the
Center and on the Neighborhood by Neighbor survey.
“I did a lot of the surveys. We did on-site surveys and documented all the ones that
were considered problems either by code violations or other things,” said Cregger
(BA ’08). “The great thing about the project was it inherently encompassed an aspect
of community engagement. We’d actually go into the communities and enlist the help
of organizations and community members and get their insight as far as the actual
conditions of the neighborhoods, not just what we perceived the conditions (to be).”
Janet Boscarino, director of Clean Memphis, said the organization needed a way to
connect with individuals who lived in a blighted community, hence its association
with the U of M.
“You really had to get an organic process of getting people involved that actually
live, work or go to church in those areas to be involved with the cleanup process
and taking ownership of it. Through that process of connecting with neighborhood groups
and CDCs, we were connected with the U of M’s Center for Building Community and Neighborhood
Clean Memphis also needed help in dividing the city into zones and figuring out the
boundaries, so they turned to the U of M’s Center for Partnerships in GIS.
“In the beginning, our goal was to divide the city into zones largely based on actual
neighborhood boundaries, zip codes,” said Boscarino (BA ‘07). “We would make these
zones and pull teams together within the zones to make this cohesive group that would
address it in an ongoing basis. The University helped us develop that. We did just
a drawing on a regular city map of dividing the zones. They were able to take that
and make a GIS mapping system out of it. The data from the survey was incorporated
as well. They helped us get the zones mapped out and added layers to help us better
approach or better inform the neighborhoods of the problems and how to address those.”
But breaking zones out by neighborhoods wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“When you look at how people define neighborhood boundaries, they don’t line up next
to one another. They are all over the place because no one can agree on which neighborhood
they live in,” said Dr. Brian Waldron, director of the Center for Partnerships in
GIS in the FedEx Institute of Technology. “The City divided the city based upon what
operations they were performing. They’ll break it up by council districts, by storm
water and sanitary sewers. What everybody is struggling with across the board is to
make sure they’re using the same map. That is critical. That will allow you to compare
apples to apples.”
Waldron’s team, including students, was able to produce a new and improved map for
Clean Memphis in two days while Clean Memphis thought the new map would take two to
six months to develop.
“They were ecstatic. We have some really top-notch students. We have the expertise.
That’s why we are able to go faster,” said Waldron (BSCE ’92, MS ’94).
The group converted Clean Memphis’ standard street map into an interactive, Web-based
More than 100 volunteers cleanup along the Wolf River with the Wolf River Conservancy.
(Photo by Janet Boscarino)
“They had a street map with hand-drawn boundaries on it,” Waldron said. “It looked
rag-tag because they used it so much. What we were able to do was not only produce
a new map, but go online. We produced an interactive Web site where anyone they gave
access to could zoom in, ask questions, see the roads and move around the map. It
is very dynamic in that it helps to facilitate communication they have with their
Since mapping out the zones and identifying the immediate target areas, Clean Memphis
has been pleased with their zip code initiatives and has more planned.
“Within all of the zip code partnerships we have, we’re working on cleanup initiatives,”
said Boscarino. “They all have spring cleanups on the calendar. The meetings are very
well attended and everyone’s very enthusiastic and wants to get on a more strategic
level of dealing with litter and blight.”
To help get youth more engaged in their community and understand the problem of blight,
Clean Memphis piloted a “Build to Live” summer camp for kids in southeast Memphis
this past summer. The Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action has a
strong presence in the area with its role in the Southeast Memphis Initiative for
the past seven years and lent a hand.
“Clean Memphis’ emphasis is on neighborhood cleanups, but it is more than just that.
It’s on organizing people in the neighborhoods, especially youth, to take a more global
view of the quality of life in their neighborhoods — what it means to be in an environment
that sn’t blighted,” said Betts.
Every Saturday, children from the Autumn Ridge apartment complexes and some parents
participated in the eight-week program. The Southeast CDC, Boy Scout Explorers Program
and the Urban Land Institute were involved as well.
“It included things like basic cleanup and building our environment to enhance our
quality of life and our morale,” said Betts. “It was pretty successful.”
“We incorporated a community service project into the lessons,” added Boscarino. “They
organized their own cleanup and marketed it. They ran the whole show: got supplies,
made the arrangements for trash pickup, so it worked really well. Hopefully, through
the cleanups and other service learning projects, they’re taking ownership and modifying
behavior for the long term.”
Clean Memphis is in the planning stages of a more in-depth and expanded pilot program
to be launched in the Southeast Memphis area as an extension of the summer camp. They
also hope to continue expanding the zip code initiatives.
“We’d like to have the city basically covered with zip code collaboratives,” said
Boscarino. “Then, we want to provide service-learning projects. We’re looking at doing
those with existing outreach programs. You can really tell the difference when you’re
talking to a kid. It’s as if they’ve never known about the litter being out there
until they’ve started to clean it up. It’s amazing how they connect to it all of a
sudden and wonder why it’s here.”