There’s a good reason why Amsterdam’s public spaces are cleaner than Portland’s

Compacting garbage receptacles in Amsterdam. (Photos: Taylor Griggs: BikePortland)

— This post is part of BikePortland Staff Writer Taylor Griggs’ trip through Europe. See previous dispatches here.

She said something along the lines of: “Amsterdam is a lot like Portland,” and then, whispered: “except for the homeless people.”

Could Portland have nice, well-maintained public spaces like the Dutch do? In the comments of the story I wrote yesterday about the bounty of “third places” in The Netherlands, someone said it wouldn’t be feasible: any space offered to Portland’s public free of charge would soon be overrun with trash and needles. (This point is brought up a lot when we talk about creating more public amenities in Portland.)

Now, I might not feel like the comments on yesterday’s post warranted a story of their own, but this discussion emphasized another experience I had a few days ago. I was briefly chatting with an American woman in Amsterdam who lived in Portland at some point recently, and when we discovered our mutual connection, she said something along the lines of: “Amsterdam is a lot like Portland,” and then whispered: “except for the homeless people.”

I posted this anecdote almost verbatim on Twitter and it got more attention that I expected. Some people chimed in with their opinions on why she would say something like this. Now, I don’t want to single this woman out specifically — I’m sure other people have made the same comparison, and I have no idea what her relationship to Portland’s homeless population is — but I do think it’s worth looking at why Portland has a far more visible problem with homelessness (and things typically associated with homelessness, like public drug use) than Amsterdam does.

The main source of litter on Amsterdam’s streets seemed to be Christmas trees waiting for pickup.

It’s not a value judgment to say that you don’t see trash and needles in The Netherlands to the same extent that you do in Portland. And it didn’t take me long to figure out why: dealing with trash is built into the city’s DNA. Unlike in Portland, there are public trash cans everywhere in Amsterdam. If you need a place to put your garbage while walking around the city, you don’t have to hope someone left their trash bin out in their driveway and won’t yell at you for using it. You can simply toss it in one of the many facilities available for everyone to use.

Let’s talk needles, then. The existence of a sufficient needle exchange program in Portland has been limited by people’s concerns that the availability of a place to dispose of needles and syringes will encourage drug use, (despite no evidence to support that idea) so there simply aren’t very many places for people to dispose of them. In comparison, Amsterdam created the first needle and syringe exchange program in the 1980s to good effect, and there are several options available for people who want to dispose of their used needles now. (Thanks to government efforts, they also don’t have an ongoing opioid epidemic like we do in the U.S.)

And these public facilities are just additions to the social safety network already present in western European countries (and many other places outside of the United States), which gives people access to healthcare, education and housing subsidies.

This isn’t to say the system works perfectly. The rising cost of living in The Netherlands has made way for a resurgence of a squatting movement that first took off in the 1960s within Amsterdam’s student population. But compared to the U.S., Dutch residents have a lot more resources at their disposal, and this includes public playgrounds and carfree spaces.

Without a government willing to provide basic resources for its residents, it will be a lot more difficult to see Dutch infrastructure in the United States. This much is clear just by looking at the way Amsterdam deals with its trash.

Taylor Griggs

Taylor Griggs

Taylor was BikePortland's staff writer from 2021 to 2023. She currently writes for the Portland Mercury. Contact her at taylorgriggswriter@gmail.com

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Frank Perillo
Frank Perillo
1 year ago

Okay, where are the MILLIONS of dollars going that are being extracted from taxpayers to address the problem? Where? If only more garbage cans were and answer to Portland’s problems.

Chris I
Chris I
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank Perillo

The vast array of private non-profits, inefficiently doling out services. Huge overhead costs, duplication of services, and outright fraud in some cases. This all needs to be brought back in as a City function.

Will
Will
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank Perillo

They’ll come from the budget, Frank.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago
Reply to  Will

And the budget comes from the taxpayers.

Fred
Fred
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank Perillo

Metro used some of it to buy tents and tarps, most of which ended up in the garbage. Meanwhile they won’t fund Ted’s plan for safe camping. I’m really disappointed in Jessica Vega Pederson, who has already broken her promise to support safe camping.

JUSTIN R MORTON
JUSTIN R MORTON
1 year ago

More trash cans is the answer? Interesting.

First, the City of Portland will need to set up a trash/needle committee to examine the issue. Then we will break up that committee into smaller subcommittees to examine both trash and then needles. The subcommittees can authorize a study to confirm that more trash cans will in fact be helpful when dealing with the trash. Then once we have the study the full committee can draft recommendations that we will send to the city regarding more trash cans. If the City’s fiscal advisory board approves , we can pass those recommendations to the city council for further consideration. And in ten years, the city will hopefully have one more trash can for both trash/needles.

J_R
J_R
1 year ago

Besides the task force and subcommittees, we will also need to send city staff to visit faraway places like Amsterdam to see in person how they do it. And, don’t forget about viewing all investigations and proposals “through the equity lens.” Ten years is too optimistic.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago

RE Needles: There simply aren’t very many places for people to dispose of them

There are lots of places to deposit used needles besides the playground. A list of disposal locations offered by the county is here: https://www.multco.us/syringe-disposal/syringe-drop-box-locations, and many businesses have needle depositories in their restrooms. Many pharmacies have them, and I assume every shelter has them. The red porta-potties (and many other ones) have them. I see places to dispose of needles around basically everywhere.

PTB
PTB
1 year ago

Up until a few years ago I was firmly of the opinion that Portland was a very clean city, and I always thought that was very cool. When I go for a long walk I have thought that a few more public garbage cans would be cool, but that’s not what got us where we are now where it’s totally common to see garbage bags that look like they were dropped out of the sky and exploded upon impact with the Earth.

Richard
Richard
1 year ago

If you look at the number of homeless people in Amsterdam, the number is not shockingly different than Portland. The major difference is that you aren’t allowed to sleep outside in Amsterdam, and this policy is strictly enforced (by taking people to shelters and directing them towards services). It really is a night and day difference (I lived in Amsterdam for a year), and the fact that there are more people walking and biking in general adds to the feeling of safety and comfort.

Contributing towards the welfare of others can indeed improve your own quality of life. It’s just a question of whether or not you’re willing to pay for it.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard

I do not think we are doing people any favors by half of the City telling them to set a semi-permanent home on a sidewalk/beach/interchange and then giving them tents, tarps, food, needles, etc; while the other half of the City fights to sweep these on an unpredictable schedule. Occupying public land is not a sustainable/desirable policy, living in tent is not healthy nor safe. I hope we can develop clear guidelines that re-establish expectations for behavior in public spaces.

Fred
Fred
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard

You nailed it, Richard. Portland’s de facto policy of allowing people to sleep on the streets, in cars and campers, in parks, and in other public spaces is the root cause of almost every other problem, including the trash problem Taylor highlighted.

I know Everyone Hates Ted, but I think he’s on the right track in trying to set up safe camping. A judge has ruled you can’t take someone off the street if there’s no place for that person to go, so the safe camps need to be that place.

Matt S.
Matt S.
1 year ago

Trash follows poverty, there’s a lot of poverty in Portland.

 
 
1 year ago

I don’t think we can boil the cleanliness of Amsterdam in comparison to Portland to only a single action item. Trash cans are certainly a part of the solution, but not a panacea. In my view, there are several aspects of Portland compared to Amsterdam that leads to the discrepancy we see, including but probably not limited to:

A Lack of trash cans in Portland, as mentioned.A complete lack of a nationwide support system to prevent people from falling into homelessness in the United States, including in Portland.Multimillionaires in the United States hoarding all the wealth and the lack of taxes these people pay, in turn hindering the amount of services that any locality in the US has the means to provide.An acceptance of street camping as a way of life in Portland that is not present in Amsterdam (or many other US cities for that matter).The complete lack of mental health care services — voluntary or involuntary — in Oregon. Not only are our mental health services horrible on an international scale, but we’re dead last of any state in the United States.The presence of involuntary commitment in the Netherlands, that does not exist in any comparable form in Oregon.A functional police force in Amsterdam that does not exist in Portland — PPB is useless.The massive number of nonprofits in Portland sucking down funds without providing any tangible results.Stonewalling by the county in terms of doing anything to remedy the problem in Portland. Although I hope that with Kafoury now out of the picture we can finally start to see some improvement…
The US — and Portland in particular — have a long way to go to remedy these issues. Placing down lots of trash cans will help, but there are a multitude other issues at play too.

 
 
1 year ago
Reply to   

No idea what happened to the formatting here: that was supposed to be bullet points! I’ll make it separate paragraphs so I know it shows up…

A Lack of trash cans in Portland, as mentioned.

A complete lack of a nationwide support system to prevent people from falling into homelessness in the United States, including in Portland.

Multimillionaires in the United States hoarding all the wealth and the lack of taxes these people pay, in turn hindering the amount of services that any locality in the US has the means to provide.

An acceptance of street camping as a way of life in Portland that is not present in Amsterdam (or many other US cities for that matter).

The complete lack of mental health care services — voluntary or involuntary — in Oregon. Not only are our mental health services horrible on an international scale, but we’re dead last of any state in the United States.

The presence of involuntary commitment in the Netherlands, that does not exist in any comparable form in Oregon.

A functional police force in Amsterdam that does not exist in Portland — PPB is useless.

The massive number of nonprofits in Portland sucking down funds without providing any tangible results.

Stonewalling by the county in terms of doing anything to remedy the problem in Portland. Although I hope that with Kafoury now out of the picture we can finally start to see some improvement…

Watts
Watts
1 year ago
Reply to   

“Multimillionaires in the United States hoarding all the wealth”

I agree our tax system is broken and needs to be fixed number of ways, but this comment suggests that you think the total amount of wealth is fixed and the problem is dividing the pie. Elon Musk (for example) did not take his wealth from other people, he built things that produced new wealth that did not previously exist. I am not so opposed to people who get rich this way being rich.

Yes, tax the rich (and especially their estates), but also acknowledge that they create, not just take.

[Like all generalizations, this one is not universally true, but it often is.]

Damien
Damien
1 year ago
Reply to  Watts

Elon Musk is a poor example; the majority of US billionaires made their money through financial gimmickry, not any innovation/product/anything that contributes anything good or useful. I don’t think it would be hard to argue after the last few financial crashes that they *did*, directly and indirectly, take wealth from other people. A lot of other people. While creating nothing.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago
Reply to  Damien

There are doubtless examples of such parasites but the wealthiest people of our generation are those like Gates, Zuckerberg, and Jobs who were all builders. I have always eschewed tech investing (not because I didn’t understand it, but because I did), but an awful lot of people got a share of that wealth, including anyone with a defined contribution retirement program.

My biggest objection to neosocialist rhetoric is that it embodies and inaccurate and sometimes spiteful view of the world. If we are going to successfully move past the crises of the day, we will need all the talented builders that we can find. If some of them get rich along the way, I can live with that.

Damien
Damien
1 year ago
Reply to  Watts

There are doubtless examples of such parasites but the wealthiest people of our generation are those like Gates, Zuckerberg, and Jobs who were all builders.

Sure – the top, public billionaire figureheads. There are a couple of good reasons why we all know them: One, they’re usually raging narcissists (but that’s neither here nor there for this discussion), and two, they give excellent cover for the kind of argument you’re making now.

They give cover to the great many billionaires – I would bet to say most though that would require more number crunching than I have access to – are actually just parasites on society (and this is completely setting aside the fact that even these builders are almost always engaged in highly exploitative, unsustainable extraction on either labor or natural resources to get there – I’m pretending that isn’t the case for the sake of argument)

I believe builders should be able to get rich – I understand the incentive structure there. I also believe, to borrow the phrase, that every billionaire is a policy failure, and that the aforementioned incentive structure would still be just as strong if Musk could be the richest man in the world but, say, be worth, 999 million instead. Because at some point those numbers are individually meaningless (but collectively disastrous) beyond a phallic measuring contest. And I guess foolhardy ventures like buying Twitter.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago
Reply to  Damien

foolhardy ventures like buying Twitter

I would posit that buying Twitter only to destroy may be one of Musk’s greatest contributions to humankind. I wish him great success in that effort.

PS Musk probably does not have $999 million; he owns shares of companies that, if he could sell them (which he can’t without tanking them), he’d have billions, but the money only exists on paper at the moment, and could, like his investment in Twitter, evaporate back into the same ether whence it came. When he does convert his shares into money by selling them to an eager buyer, he will pay tax (I’ll stipulate the rate will likely be too low).

Watts
Watts
1 year ago
Reply to  Damien

I’m curious: what happened to my response to this post?

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor
Reply to  Watts

Watts, anything with the word “social” in it gets put in the trash. I figure a libertarian programmer at WordPress introduced a block into the code. Spell it “soshial,” or alert me when you use it so I can retrieve.

PTB
PTB
1 year ago

Is this for real??

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor
Reply to  PTB

Yeah, maybe it’s “socialist” that puts you into the trash. It’s not in BPs list of blocked words, so all I can figure is that it’s in the code. I haven’t searched to see what internet says about it. But most sites don’t moderate comments, so maybe it’s been mostly under the radar. Shocking, huh?

Watts
Watts
1 year ago

Did my other message end up there as well? I wrote it before I saw this note, and it may have included the offending word.

Luke
Luke
1 year ago
Reply to  Watts

Generally speaking, the rich in capitalist countries coordinate; private businesses are self-contained planned economies. Trouble is, in capitalism, their directive is to generate more capital; anything else is an add-on. Public entities, by contrast, are directed to produce numerous other things, public health and safety among them. Hence the importance of redirecting capital from capitalists, where it only reproduces itself, to government, which is at least supposed to produce public goods. You do this via taxation.

Poor American governance is a different problem, but our decades-long project of “starving the beast” is a problem in itself. Raise taxes, and at least begin to return American capital to the auspices of the American public.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago
Reply to  Luke

In capitalism, their directive is to generate more capital; anything else is an add-on

This is only true if that’s what the owners of the companies want. Corporations can be organized around any principle. Some companies, B Corps, for example, pursue other goals as well. Co-ops are corporations with a particular ownership structure. Even BikePortland, which is (as I understand it) just a “regular company” obviously has a large mission than just making money.

There is nothing stopping you or anyone else from starting a company that does not pursue the generation of capital (though organizations have expenses that have to get paid somehow). A friend started one that never pursued any revenue at all (all expenses were paid by him as was his intent from the outset). Our system offers you the freedom to do what you want with your money, and to work cooperatively with others who are likeminded.

But, given the way we’re wired, most people most of the time want their companies to generate more capital.

begin to return American capital to the auspices of the American public.

I used to agree with this point of view more than I do now, but over the past decade or so I’ve watched the state of Oregon get so many things wrong where money wasn’t the issue (unemployment system, covid relief funds for renters to name two of many) that I’ve lost a lot of faith in the ability of government to do things, even things where it is the obvious answer.

In my disappeared message, I pointed out that American public owns large chunks of the same private companies that produce much of the “hoarded” wealth. Most people with a 401K, for example, or a PERS pension, already have a share of “American capital”. I might cite this as another example of the outdated rhetoric I mentioned in the message I wrote but went away.

I’m not anti-government, but I am a lot more skeptical than I once was about the sort of results it can achieve on a practical level.

Boyrd
Boyrd
1 year ago

A minor quibble about the photo caption. I don’t believe those are actually compacting trash receptacles. The visible part of the trash can that sits aboveground is just a chute that empties into a much larger subsurface dumpster. The whole apparatus is lifted up to be emptied by the trash collection vehicles when they do their rounds. But there are no mechanical compaction functions in the trash receptacle, afaik.

I’ve used those trash bins in Amsterdam, and it seemed to me that the garbage just drops down after you rotate the door shut.

I agree that the ubiquity of public trash cans in residential neighborhoods and commercial districts alike help to contribute to the cleanliness of the city. But I think there’s also a strong contribution from civic pride and a social ethic that encourages collective, communal action for the greater good that is lacking in the USA. Oh yeah, and there aren’t people camping on public streets…

Mark Person
Mark Person
1 year ago

The trash system sure seems very innovative there in Amsterdam, I recently discovered this video that goes into much more detail: We Have No Garbage Day in Amsterdam! – YouTube

Graham
Graham
1 year ago

Isn’t there also a different attitude regarding community in Europe that sprang from WW2? Not for nothing but I think Americans, Portlanders included, are less civically minded. There are safety nets here but one is pretty much on one’s own.
I guess the differences described in the post relate to that apathy, though.

Gunter Fritz
Gunter Fritz
1 year ago

More trash cans? Oh please. We need to stop the enabling of street camping. They DO NOT allow this in Amsterdam.

Champs
Champs
1 year ago

If there is an abundance of trash cans (and fortunately just enough pissoirs in my experience) throughout Amsterdam, Japan has very few, and gives up nothing in the way of cleanliness.

Whether it’s guns, traffic safety, or just about anything else, you can feed a similar set of variables into one place and get very different results from another. Some of it just comes down to the people.

And nobody has really harped on the this much lately, but but the financial obligations of PERS definitely eat into how much we tax and spend on community needs. Being fair to all sides, those pensions were earned, and higher taxes to paper over the holes in our safety net have had disappointing results.

Americans spend the most on healthcare, yet somehow don’t get the very best of care, workers are striking over pay and conditions, hospitals are struggling. Figure all of that out. Inputs and outputs…

Gibran Ramos
Gibran Ramos
1 year ago

I was a former Seattlite and move to PDX 20 yrs ago. Recently spent four days in NW Seattle staying with friends.

Seattle has no more apparent trash can density them PDX but there was significantly less trash and trash piles.

There was also significantly less graffiti and abandoned vehicles (saw zero abandoned vehicles) than Portland…and I would say even less graffiti in Seattle than 20 years ago.

As others have mentioned it is not just trash cans that make a difference. After having this discussion on Seattle being much cleaner than Portland with my Seattle friends, I would say that Seattle is addressing trash and vandalism as soon as it arises. In essence using the same strategy that New York city used in the kid 90s to clean up that city. “No broken windows.”

I live in an inner SE PDX neighborhood. We’ve had a regular incidents of trash being dumped across the street from our house. We have cleaned up the trash piles two times previous and this 5th time a neighbor found the the RID program. She made a report…the trash piles is still there two weeks later. The system is broken. This is not a problem of lack of trash cans.

It’s time for Portland to decrease the response time in addressing these issues and immediately address the “broken windows” as they occur.

donel a courtney
donel a courtney
1 year ago

In sum: the perspective expressed in this article is why we in Portland have a trash problem.

Isaac
Isaac
1 year ago

It has always astounded me that Portland has no sanitation department.

In another article on this topic, I read that there are something like 11 agencies that have limited responsibility for public trash disposal. Meaning that there are zero tasked with actually solving the problem.

Hopefully this is an issue that our future city manager can get under control.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago
Reply to  Isaac

“future city manager”

Even if the system works as advertised, and even if we are lucky enough to find someone who is up for the job, and even if they have the same priorities that you do, it will be many years before that tree bears fruit.

A lot of trash is going to get dumped between now and then. We need somebody who can take hold of this issue in a more immediate time frame.

JC aduncan
JC aduncan
1 month ago

Ok good start. But we can’t solve the problem by just putting more trash cans out. There needs to be far more regulation of people and what they’re trading. This is the great irony of liberals v conservatives. Liberals all like: let ppl be. Conservatives all like: no big government! Well, duh, both sides. We can’t fix this if we’re 100% hands-off. So, liberals need to accept wholly we have to put limitations on ppl (don’t do and sell dangerous drugs,) conservatives need to realize and accept we need to out money and government resources against fighting this wicked problem.