A scene from a Los Angeles street cleanup in 1995. AP Photo/Reed Saxon

A new system gives a numerical ranking to every block of the city’s 22,000 miles.

As of April, every street in Los Angeles has a number. It falls on a scale of 1 to 3, and it denotes cleanliness: 61 percent of were given a 1 and determined clean, 35 percent were somewhat tidy, and 4 percent were a 3—flat-out dirty.

These rankings, commissioned as part of L.A.’s $9.1 million Clean Streets Initiative, have a pretty clear message for Mayor Eric Garcetti: “In L.A., we just haven’t been doing a very good job,” he tells CityLab. The city has long faced problems with trash. While it may seem in okay shape now, cleanliness-wise, with 96 percent of the streets in tolerable-to-good condition, LA Independent reported that the remaining 4 percent is still significant: “It equates to 376 miles, or running a marathon each day for two weeks and seeing only streets filled with trash.”

Street-rating systems are nothing new for cities: New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have all implemented versions, the Los Angeles Times reported. But L.A.’s Clean Streets Index is unique in its breadth, says Enrique C. Zaldivar, the executive director of the city’s Bureau of Sanitation. L.A.’s is the only program that accounts for every single street in a city. Over the course of the data collection period, representatives from the Bureau of Sanitation drove a total of 22,000 miles along every block in every neighborhood of Los Angeles.

To track conditions over time, the Bureau of Sanitation will use a tool, CleanStat, modeled on the Los Angeles Police Department’s data-driven crime-tracking system, CompStat. The assessment-area grids, video surveillance mechanisms, and population information provide a way for the Sanitation Bureau to implement their new efforts cheaply and efficiently, without having to “reinvent the wheel,” Zaldivar says. Sanitation officials and city representatives will hold monthly CleanStat meetings to review street conditions and cleanup strategies and update street rankings accordingly.

Children pass through a trash-filled lot on their way to school. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

That L.A. is choosing to prioritize cleanliness alongside its myriad other issues mirrors a longstanding historical equation of street conditions with societal concerns, in L.A. and beyond. The first episode of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s new podcast, for instance, discusses how trash in Brooklyn functioned as a symbol of inequality in the 1960s civil rights movement.

Since proposing the Clean Streets Initiative in 2015, Garcetti has been careful to emphasize how cleanliness cuts through a wide swath of municipal concerns: the minimum wage, homelessness, and the state of the Los Angeles River. “A dirty street can make a young person feel bad about herself every day on her walk to school and effect the quality of her education; a dirty street effects an investor’s decision as to whether she wants to put money into the city,” Garcetti says.

“It’s easy to be swept away by an idea of what the future of cities can be,” he adds. “But I’m of the belief that you don’t earn the right to work on those things if you’re not taking care of the basics right before you.”

However, Garcetti’s approach to the Clean Streets Index is decidedly forward-looking. Los Angeles’ sprawling area, he says, poses a particular problem in presenting a unified front against citywide issues, but data and technology bring some of those problems into more manageable terms. In the case of crime, it appears to be effective; The Atlantic noted that crime rates dropped an average of 10 percent since 1990 in the U.S. cities that adopted systems like CompStat.

Yet the emphasis on new tech is not designed to pull the solution out of residents’ reach. The data is easily accessible online, and mirroring the approach Garcetti took as a councilmember to curb graffiti in the mid-2000s, the city government will recruit a Clean Streets liaison from each of Los Angeles’ 96 neighborhood councils. “It’s really about hyper-accountability,” Garcetti says. “Any business owner or resident can log on and check it out, then say to their council member: ‘Why the heck is our street a 3? I want it to be a 1.’”

The Clean Streets Index “is a two-way street, pun intended,” Garcetti says. “It’s an acknowledgement that we can do better, but we know that the ultimate force multiplier is engaged residents who are able to hold the government accountable, and work to directly improve the conditions around them.”

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