How Do You Measure a Neighborhood’s Progress?

A field report from the River District in Sacramento, California’s capital city.


Cities in the United States are changing fast and some are facing significant underreported challenges. This is especially true of the River District in Sacramento, the capital of California.

This year, the River District is tasked with tackling four monumental challenges: Covid-19, the opioid crisis, uncontrolled houselessness, and ecological deterioration as a result of garbage seeping into its two rivers, American and Sacramento.

Manning the frontlines are civil servants, firefighters, EMTs, crisis counselors, and Jenna Abbott, the Executive Director of The River Community Improvement District (PBID). Jenna, one of the few female heads of a PBID, is responsible for taking care of the community and tackles these challenges head-on.

Jenna Abbott, Executive Director of The River District PBID
Jenna Abbott, Executive Director of The River District PBID

The already challenging job is intensified by the lower than average funding her organization receives. Similar-sized Community Benefit Districts, only 70 miles away in San Francisco, receive 6x the funding. Her requests for additional funding were deferred due to City Hall’s view that the River District is “not so bad” and “Downtown has the same problems.” 

Unheard and underfunded, Jenna tried something new. She commissioned Rubbish, a company focused on using technology and data to clean litter, to perform a ground-up audit of her entire district so that every single issue from cigarette butts, to graffiti, tents, needles, and poop were recorded. The goal was to provide a detailed and unbiased source of information to counter City Hall’s denial of additional funding. In total, over 17,000 issues across 27-linear-miles were recorded in 3 days.

The following is the story of what we uncovered, how it was done, and how other unheard communities can find a voice.

Point map of all 17,000+ issues found in Rubbish audit of River District 2021.
Point map of all 17,000+ issues. Scroll to the bottom to see the link to the full report.

Let’s begin.

How do you measure a neighborhood's progress?

Step One: Start with the “Why?”

“Data is like garbage. You’d better know what you are going to do with it before you collect it.” ~ Mark Twain

According to Jenna, “We felt like some of our colleagues at City Hall didn’t understand the magnitude of the problem. We need more funding to address our challenges and we will use the audit to apply for grant funding and use it to help the city and the county understand that we need more resources applied to our area.”

Step Two: The “What” is next

Heroin needles, cigarette butts, PPE, garbage piles, and poop, are a few of our favorite things because they can tell us a lot about what is happening in a neighborhood. 

Beyond these standard go-to’s, ask local leaders and the community what is important to them. Every community is different, for example, SOMA West Community Benefit District in San Francisco was interested in adding more greenery to their neighborhood so they requested that we include a count of landscaping issues such as, weeds, and empty tree holes. They used this information to acquire more funding and worked with Friends of the Urban Forest to add much-needed tree cover for the community to enjoy. 

A unique challenge for the River District is fires that spread from encampments. This caused millions of dollars in damages and puts people’s lives in danger. To help mitigate this issue and further understand the impact it has on the community, we tracked fire residue. 

2019 Fire in the River District. Credit: Jenna Abbott
2019 Fire in the River District. Credit: Jenna Abbott

In total, we tracked 12 categories of issues, including the ones pictured below.

See report for full list and breakdown.

Step Three:  Measure with dignity 

This is the most difficult and important part. 

We don’t want our bright pink colors and friendly images to cover up an uncomfortable truth;  sometimes the reality on the ground is grim, sometimes a person’s situation is so desperate that it is difficult to decipher what is idle trash and what is someone's shelter for the night, sometimes that shelter belongs to a child under the age of eight.

This is a map of temporary shelters, such as tents and RV's, in the River District. Stop and take a moment to remind yourself that it is someone's home. 

Map of temporary shelters in the River District, June 2021
Map of temporary shelters in the River District, June 2021

It’s easy to feel upset or saddened when reviewing this chart, but remember that oppression thrives in the shadows. In order to deliver services to those who are marginalized, we need to know where they are and the magnitude of resources that will be needed. 

Ok, ready for step four? (We will include some uplifting news.)

Step Four: Analyze 

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” ~Sherlock Holmes

We need to clean up our data before we can clean up the streets. In addition to gathering raw numbers, we ran a 1-mile comparison of the River District to a representative mile in Downtown Sacramento. Both stretches have the highest level of urgent issues in their respective neighborhoods.

River District vs Downtown Sacramento 1-Mile Comparison
River District vs Downtown Sacramento 1-Mile Comparison

Step Five:  Report without alarm

“How did my colleagues react? They were shocked, dismayed, extremely interested, and very motivated.” ~ Jenna Abbott, Executive Director of the River District in Sacramento

If we do a good job recording, the data should speak for itself. No alarmist messaging or hyperbole is needed.

The River District has an 8x higher occurrence of Garbage Piles in June 2021.
The River District has a 39x higher occurrence of Temporary Shelters in June 2021.

It’s not exactly good news, but a vindication of what Jenna has been saying all along. The River District has some big challenges.

Step Six:  Inform with facts, not fear

Sometimes more than dots on a map are necessary to tell a story. 

These photos, taken during the audit, evidence ecological and public health dangers that unabated trash and litter can cause in the River District and beyond. For communities that border rivers it can be common for trash from the streets to seep into the waterways and get taken downstream.

Garbage piles in the River District 2021.
Garbage piles represent a public health hazard to the inhabitants of the River District.

Matsui Waterfront Park and the SMUD Museum of Science host several hazards in an area frequented by families, children, and tourists.

Step Seven: Address and repeat

Sometimes the truth hurts, but to do nothing is intolerable. Armed with a quantified and objective baseline, we can strategize and measure improvement. According to Jenna, the report will be used to show the improvement or non-improvement year over year. San Francisco’s SOMA West District has taken the same approach and has seen a 58% reduction in needles and a 62% reduction in graffiti.

Not only will the audit help Jenna secure funding and direct her limited resources to the locations in greatest need of help with litter, needles, and ecological hazards, but it also connects her to the human condition a dot on the map could represent - a person in need. 

Finally: What’s the solution?

Sometimes our audits yield straightforward fixes, such as where to place a cigarette disposal or how to reduce the litter footprint at large events

In the case of the River District audit, the solutions have to come from within the community and with the informed consent of its inhabitants. Our role is to empower these people with the unbiased information they need to make the decisions that serve the best interests of their community.

What can you do?

Stop and be grateful that not every street corner is overflowing with trash. That is what would happen without the hard work of our sanitation workers, civil servants, and community leaders, like Jenna Abbott.

Thank your local neighborhood heroes, especially your sanitation workers.

Jenna’s story is still unfolding.
Click here to listen to our full post-audit interview with Jenna. 

Emin Israfil

CEO of Rubbish

We all deserve to love where we live.

View Full River District 2021 Report Here

Written by
Emin Israfil