Sunday Opinion: Keeping America Beautiful



Keep America Beautiful is an organization which has been devoted to promoting the idea that a clean environment is a beautiful and healthy environment since 1953.  The original group of business people and public figures had the idea to link the private and public sector in a campaign to stamp out littering.  If you are any where near me in age, you will remember the public service announcements in the 1970’s featuring Chief Iron Eyes Cody and the tagline “People start pollution.  People can stop it”.  The Ad Council of America considers it one of the most successful public service campaigns ever mounted. It had to have been fairly successful-I still remember it vividly, some 40 years after the fact.  I would sooner stuff my lunch trash in my own coat pocket than throw it on the ground.  Their role in recent years has been to focus on the merits of recycling.  Both technology and human ingenuity have helped to create ways to transform trash into products that can be reused.


Why am I talking about litter?  We were downtown last week, decorating 50 planter boxes on Woodward Avenue that feature trees at the center.  As the aluminum fencing around each box is about 18 inches tall, I suggested decorating each tree truck with corn shocks, and other decor that suggested fall.  The result is a celebration of fall that can be seen from a car, or on foot.  So what does this have to do with litter?  The boxes themselves were littered.  Lots of litter.  I would guess that it takes an incredible amount of time and money to regularly clean them.  Though there’s no need to litter, it happens.

Woodweard-Avenue-Detroit.jpg While we were installing this fall display, a Detroit police officer pulled over to the curb near us, set off his siren, and turned on his lights. Yes, we were startled, and yes we watched.  The officer called out to a man on the side walk who had just thoughtlessly dumped his lunch trash and plastic bottle on the sidewalk to pick up his mess, and put it in the trash barrel not 10 feet away.  There was much discussion and lots of resistance, but the man finally picked up his mess and put it in the garbage can.  I admire that officer who treated littering and polluting as a crime against the environment.

Woodward-Avenue-planters.jpgThat officer let it be known loud and clear that he expects his city to be orderly, safe, friendly, busy, crime free-and clean. Pollution free-one trashy moment at a time. The incident made a big impression on me.  Obviously clean cities happen via groups of concerned people who bring their influence to bear.  Clean cities perhaps rely even more on those individuals who take the time and effort to protect the environment.  It also occurs to me that a clean and litter free city has much to do with a collective sense of ownership, and stewardship.  How can that pride of  ownership and stewardship be fostered?  One litter free block at a time.  One clean day at a time.  One proud person at a time.


We were hired to make a statement about fall in the downtown Detroit area.  My thoughts regarding the design were as follows.  I wanted to celebrate those trees on Woodward Avenue that managed to grow in a thoroughly urbanized city.  I wanted to draw attention to the trees, and the planter boxes.  I wanted to make anyone who rode or walked down Woodward to be engaged by what we did.  I wanted to, for a brief moment, to draw attention to nature.  My hope was that attention would foster respect.

city-tree.jpgI may not get my wish-this go round. If you are a gardener, you understand that it can take a lot of time to develop a garden, or a landscape.  It can take more than a lifetime.  As for a litter free America, it may take many generations.  But I am happy to report that more people than not are informed and supportive of a clean, beautiful, and healthy America.  Gardeners have for generations been interested in a clean and beautiful environment.     Woodward-Avenue.jpg

Gardeners have homes that they choose to keep beautiful and clean.  Gardeners who move to another property have been stewards.  My idea?  I would encourage anyone and everyone to garden.  Once you garden, you understand the treasure inviolate that is nature. Would that everyone would be a gardener.



  1. Carol Passavant says

    Kudos to that officer. If he doesn’t have enough to do he is still concerned with keeping the city surroundings clean and pleasing.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Carol, I would imagine that his day is chock full of all kinds of trouble. That he took the time to insist on a clean city-I so admire him. Thanks for writing, Deborah

  2. I am in awe of that police officer.
    That part of the city is his garden. And no doubt he was inspired by the painstaking work of his gardeners — your crew.
    He reminds me of something I heard a great architect, Hal Box, say one day:
    – Trash and graffiti invite more trash and graffiti unless they are cleaned up (or covered up) immediately. –
    It takes courage and caring to call people out like that officer did.
    And it takes real soul to highlight that officer’s efforts to keep his part of the world beautiful like you did.

    What a thoughtful, inspiring tale. Not to mention the beautifully re-imagined Thanksgiving trees.
    Simply gorgeous.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kaye Starnes says

    Thank you so much for reminding me of Chief Iron Eyes Cody! My husband and I (ages 72 and 67) were shocked and saddened just 2 weeks ago when a young man in our suburban neighborhood of well landscaped homes threw his fast food trash out the window as he drove by. More and more, we are seeing litter along the rural roads near us. Those PSA’s should be brought out of mothballs. The chief’s eyes burned into our souls. Perhaps that could work again.

    • Cindareller says

      I’m reminded of that scene from Mad Men, when they had a family pic-nic. At the end of the scene, Betty and Don put the containers and thermos, etc, back in the pic-nic basket, then Betty grabs the blanket by one side, and gives it a big shake, whereupon all the paper napkins, paper cups, sandwich crusts and apple cores go flying… She folds the blanket, Don grabs the basket, someone yells, “C’mon Kids!” and they walk away leaving their mess without a care. Watching it, our jaws dropped, and we did kind of laugh at the scene. It was just unbelievable.

      I’m in my sixties too, and when all the “Please Don’t Litter” campaigning started, you actually felt like you had to throw down a gauntlet to get someone to think twice about tossing their Coke bottle to the side of the road. And we do get random middle-of-the-night fast food bags of trash which has obviously been tossed out a car window (maybe fast food is a no-no in his family, but you KNOW she can smell it on him!). I wish they’d start that ad campaign again. Kinda surprised Michelle Obama didn’t think of it… Maybe it’s time to send her a tweet or something. She still has time!

  4. I loved that commercial! It always brought a tear to my eye. We are a family of campers, and were raised to leave a space cleaner than we found it, we raised our kids that way and our grandkids are being raised that way too! Nature is a beautiful gift to be cherished! Our families also are avid gardeners and recyclers too! Thank you for the article, DiAnne

  5. Silvia Weber says

    Dear Deborah, your Fall decor for Detroit’s downtown planters is beautiful! Your work certainly should foster respect for Nature.
    And that is what separates those who litter from those who DONOT – respect! In our community, I have volunteered to care for a Keep America Beautiful Adopt-a-Spot Garden for 20 years. At least half of my time working in the garden was spent cleaning up litter! Cigarette butts – the bain of my existence. “Would that everyone would be a gardener.” This is the answer !!

  6. Laura gardiner says

    Dear Deborah,
    I agree, kudos to that officer. I am appalled when I see people littering, but I don’t usually speak up. It seems safer to quietly pick up when I can. I do agree with you, would that everyone be a gardener…our world would be a clearer and greener place. We are all stewards of this earth, only here for a short time. We must do our best to make our neighbourhoods as green as possible.

    Thank you Deborah, for posting your inspiring photos. I enjoy your posts so much.

  7. What is gardening?

    School kids are taught agriculture.

    From the start gardening is a problem. Name it to claim it.

    Most of my clients have ZERO vocabulary to tell me what they want for their landscape + home. Blessedly pictures convey what they can’t articulate.

    In addition most of my clients say they want nothing formal yet the pics they show all have formal lines.
    You treated the tree boxes as if they were table top arrangements at a wedding reception. Well done.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    Why, exactly, are we teaching children only agriculture? Ornamental horticulture is a multi-billion/year industry.

  8. Thank you for this inspiring story! Love that you are beautifying Detroit and the police officer is helping.

  9. Nancy H. Kraft says

    I love your sharing. I lived in England in the mid-80’s. I remember the parks, palace grounds etc. Families would be picnicking anywhere and I remember saying to my husband,” I do not see soda cans and trash anywhere.” It was because all was there for the people to enjoy, and they took care of it because of their pleasure.

    I had an aquIntance in Princeton whose family lived in the communist side of Berlin. when the wall came down, she went to visit. On her return she shared that she could not believe how clean and litter free East Berlin was.

    No matter where we are we must take care of our space. Perhaps it is just keeping it litter free, or perhaps adding one flower; however, if we just care for what we can and pass it on, what a beautiful jesture nd purpose, you are beautiful in what you do Ms. Silver.

  10. Hi Deborah,
    I have been enjoying your postings for the past 6 weeks. Thank-you for sharing. I too am stumped by the amount of garbage that lies along curbings, street drains, parking lots, parkways, etc. I contribute to cleaning in a quiet manner. My doggie and I go for walks; I bring an extra bag along and gather what ever may be littered along the way. Just think; if every individual contributed in some fashion such as yourself, the officer, or volunteering for a community wide clean-up day. It would be even more beautiful; Our America!

  11. kudos to that police officer!!

    i LOVE the cornshocks tied around the trees! going to try to figure out how to use that idea at my house!

  12. Yeah to you and the police officer. Littering is one of my pet peeves. Remember – Give a hoot, don’t pollute? I would love for a huge anti-littering campaign to begin again – we really need it.

    Thanks for your great posts; i really enjoy reading them and see your great work.

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