Why is San Francisco So Dirty?

A new America’s Favorite Cities survey by Travel + Leisure readers ranked San Francisco among the dirtiest cities in the nation. San Francisco came in at #12 out of 20.  But hey, the good news is that at least we ranked better than Los Angeles, which came in as the third dirtiest big city.

Our poor ranking is a double blow. Travel+Leisure readers are exactly the kind of customers we want to attract to our leading industry – tourism and conventions. And for a city that ranks in the top 10 for environmentally friendly cities we’ve apparently got some more cleaning to do.

[How can we keep San Francisco from being so dirty? Learn more when you sign up for the Reset SF Newsletter.]

Perhaps prompted by this news, Mayor Ed Lee announced he is bringing back the San Francisco Clean Streets program, a city effort that fell to the wayside a few years back. The Clean Streets program focuses on keeping commercial districts free of trash, graffiti, and general city grime. The program is slated to start on July 1.

What do you think? Why is San Francisco so dirty, and what should we do to improve? Log-in and weigh-in below.


Sign up for our weekly newsletter and join the conversation on Facebook.

Learn from other cities

I lived in Barcelona for three years and I think others would agree that it has a similarly massive problem with street trash and dirtiness... but not for more than a day or two. Barcelona has a massive gypsy, homeless, panhanlder and junkie population to rival San Francisco's and is similarly a medium-large, dense city.
The solution? BCNeta. Do a Google Image search for "bcneta" and you'll see the trucks, the sweepers and the hosers. They clean the beaches, the public plazas and any of the more high traffic areas every single day, sometimes twice (just after a party for example). They have sweepers that push the large objects from sidewalks into the streets and from between cars, then the trucks follow to pick up the refuse, and finally more of them come along with high powered hoses and power clean the sidewalks of whatever remains. If a junkie is in the way then, well, they're going to get wet. The BCNeta folk move in large enough numbers that they don't get targeted by the disturbed for retribution. It creates jobs that just can't be replaced by automation or outsourcing too.
Let's get an SFeta and rejoice in clean streets and sidewalks!

Steven Coldwell-Bryant's picture

Community Service

With the hearts of San Fransicans reaching out to the less fortunate and those who prefer a minimalist lifestyle by providing them with a destination where they can get food and healthcare we need to take it one step further by providing them with a clean environment so they can take pride in living in this great city of ours.
A cost free solution would be to add community service to all traffic and parking violations.  If we were to add a minimum of four hours of waste abatement services to each violation, that targeted specific areas, we could eliminate the problem and improve the living conditions of our less fortunate citizens.
If you are not available to perform the waste abatement services you would be able to provide funding to someone who could.  It would be a win win situation for everyone.

Residents and Non-Residents Both to Blame

I have been a TL resident for many years. I witness people littering daily.  The food waste created in the blocks surrounding soup kitchens and the areas with the highest amount of drug traffic seem to be the worst.
You can't really start fining homeless people for littering but I think going after the drug dealers (typically not residents) would be a great way to fine and get better information on the people that are poison our neighborhoods and contribute directly to the "who gives a..." attitude that is so prevalent here.
Don't even get me started about people not cleaning up after their dogs.

shawnluther's picture

How Do You Enforce City Ordinances Already In Place?

     I'm a six-year San Francisco resident, so I'm not native to the city. From watching the movie Milk, it's my understanding that one of the first things Harvey Milk did was to pass a city ordinance requiring dog owners to pick up pet waste.
     Again, I'm no expert on Harvey Milk, but I do know that he was killed in 1978. So why is something that was passed over 30 years ago still plaguing us today? (But, seriously, how hard is it to carry a plastic bag with you EVERY TIME you walk the dog?)
     Having said that, dog waste is the least of the problems. I walk to the Castro station every morning for work, and there is a stretch of sidewalk on eastbound Market Street just west of Castro (near the closed exit for the trains) that is almost always littered with human waste. Did I mention this is the CASTRO, and not the Tenderloin?
     Add to this the smell of human and dog urine, and it's just awful. The first rain of the season washed up several months worth of all of that goodness and my eyes watered from the smell. 
     In the city's defense, we do have street cleaning, which is great, but I think don't think it's enough. The homelessness and panhandling are surely part of this "dirty city" rating. If the city's restaurants are going to be so exclusive towards the homeless ("Restrooms for Customers Only"), then could we at least provide a place to use the shower and use the restroom to those that need it? 
     Okay, for all you cynics out there who think we already do "too much" to help the homeless, let's kill two birds with one stone: to use this amazing facility, you have to pass a monthly drug/alcohol test for access. Just a thought.  

hayesvoodoo's picture

Good question

This city is indeed filthy. I lived in the TL for two years and well, unfortunately my eyes can't unsee what they have seen. Litter, urine, chicken bones, feces, needles, and smashed bottles were the tip of the iceberg of human depravity.
After living in SF for a few years you simply become numb to the fact that our streets are often disgusting. I believe it's largely because of our city's massive population of panhandlers, homeless people and crackheads, many of whom who don't give a shit how they leave public spaces for the rest of us. I see trash on the streets every single day and something tells me it doesn't have to be like this. How can we learn from cities around the world who have somehow solved this problem?

Dorothy's picture

Dirty S.F.

I've lived here less than two years, and I have to say that the streets where I live are absolutely filthy. Urine smells, garbage strewn all over the place, squishy stuff on the sidewalks that people gingerly walk around, for example. One day I looked down to see cut-off jeans filled with the brown stuff, toilet paper beside the jeans, just a smelly mess. It was as if the person simply removed the clothing, put something else on, and took off. A lot of the homeless people near my area throw food wrappers all over as well as belongings they no longer need. Mattresses are left on sidewalks.
It's unfortunate that the homeless problem is not taken care of. I think New York City has done a good job in that area, but San Francisco hasn't stepped up to the plate.
I love this city. It's absolutely picturesque, has wonderful architecture, and is a destination worldwide. Its assets are many. I feel that it deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.
As to commercial districts slated to be cleaned up, that will be a real plus as that's where the tourists are mainly located. However, what about all the neighborhoods around the city? Shouldn't they be considered also? 

kelly4nia's picture

Dirty city

Absolutely. I moved here from So Cal a year ago and one of the things that continues to strike me is the complete laziness of people throwing away their trash, or just dropping it on the ground (once I saw a guy take his empty Gatorade and drop it in a tree, like the protected fencing around it). I can't tell you how much poop, human and animal, I've seen on the sidewalks. I mean the streets are so dirty, my boyfriend and I openly reprimand people walking in socks or barefoot along Market (usually a girl in pumps, and we tell her emphatically it's not worth the pain relief.)

Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137