Littered Landscapes: Trash, Visual Culture, and the Rise of Punitive Environmentalism in Philadelphia

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


American Studies

First Advisor

Barraclough, Laura


Weaving together archival research, ethnographic fieldwork, and visual analysis, Littered Landscapes chronicles the production of “ordinary” ways of seeing litter, as chaotic out-of-place debris created by individual litterbugs, from the early twentieth century to the present. Focusing on Philadelphia, I argue that these ways of seeing sharpen inequality in urban space by unevenly distributing responsibility and expectations for the labor of removing, containing, and policing trash along lines of race, gender, and class. I show that “visual cultures of litter” - photographs, maps, and other images focused on the city’s litter - play a central role in this process by foisting the blame for litter onto individual people and communities while obscuring the structural patterns and willful municipal neglect that encourage its proliferation. These ways of seeing litterers and litter supported the late twentieth century rise of what I call “punitive environmentalism,” in which residents face hefty fines, potential incarceration, and coerced labor as punishment for the littered state of the city. Within punitive environmentalism, seemingly unremarkable and benign calls to clean the city nurture the layered expansion of surveillance and policing while wielding the littered state of the landscape, itself, as a disciplining weapon. The dissertation concludes with analysis of projects by activists and artists reframing litter and challenging punitive environmentalism. Across the dissertation, I show that the construction of seemingly unremarkable ways of seeing ubiquitous litter normalizes and reinforces expanding urban inequality. As the poorest major American city and the only city of its size with no comprehensive street sweeping program, Philadelphia offers a unique case study through which to examine the relationship between urban inequality and anti-litter efforts. At the same time, the project contributes to understandings of environmental labor, visual culture, public space, governance, and policing in American cities, more broadly, by outlining shared patterns and processes linked to ordinary ways of seeing litter.

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