Living a Cleaner Life in Coral Gables

The City Makes Strides in Keeping Things Tidy 

If it’s a Saturday, Mirentxu, 10, and her seven-year-old sister Catalin know they are likely to be out early picking up trash somewhere in Coral Gables. The mission could take them along downtown’s Miracle Mile, on the beach at Matheson Hammock, or to a city park. 

On this steamy October morning, the girls hop on their scooters and head out from home, near the University of Miami. And within minutes the garbage bag carried by their father, Mayor Vince Lago, begins to fill. At a spot by the Gifford Arboretum, where they recently discovered a dead raccoon, Mirentxu spots a candy wrapper and a plastic bottle. Catalin fishes a beer can from the shrubbery. “It helps the environment,” says Mirentxu. “We like to do it.” 

Whether the sisters enjoy treasure-hunting for trash as much as they say is hard to determine. On this 45-minute walk, however, there were no complaints and no flagging of energy. And their father has been relentless in his cheerleading to see that the City Beautiful lives up to its name. 

“The responsibility to protect our natural environment for future generations, including my two daughters, extends far beyond the current moment,” says Lago, dressed for the outing in shorts and T-shirt. “We are a state that depends on over 100 million vacationers [annually]. Without ensuring clean air and clean water, our existence in South Florida is unviable.” 

Mayor Vince Lago and his two daughters, Mirentxu and Catalin, are on Garbage Patrol in a Coral Gables neighborhood near their home

Like many people passionate about the cause, Lago can’t understand why anyone would pollute the planet, let alone the city. From a hedge by a traffic circle the mayor pulls out a Kirkland water bottle half-filled what looked like urine. “Who would do this?” he asks as the girls signal disgust. 

Back at City Hall, Lago has lately turned his attention to the downtown, with a major push to clean up debris, including weeds growing along sidewalks. “To me that is unacceptable,” Lago told the city commission in October. “We cannot continue to turn a blind eye, because the quality of downtown is slipping. It’s time to hold people accountable, especially businesses, and hold ourselves accountable.” 

Miracle Mile and the adjacent commercial streets is
a special zone of concern. Lago has challenged the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce and the downtown Business Improvement District (BID) to come up with a plan to remind business owners they are responsible for weeds and litter in front of their stores and offices. 

Chamber CEO and president Mark Trowbridge credits Lago with raising the alarm. “It has to do with how pretty our streets look. We want our store fronts to be inventive and attractive… that is the very idea of good retail.” At the end of September, the city, Chamber and BID organized 45 volunteers – including Trowbridge, Mayor Lago, Commissioner Rhonda Anderson, BID Executive Director Aura Reinhardt and several city department heads – who needed barely an hour to collect 160 pounds of trash from the area. 

The Garbage Patrol - Living a Cleaner Life
Commissioner Rhonda Anderson joins the troops in a volunteer cleanup of the Central Business District.

The downtown is notthe only battle front. The city sponsors frequent coastal clean ups and neighborhood litter collections. In the past year, it has been an active participant in the Keep America Beautiful Program, with its own Keep Coral Gables Beautiful Program. Headed up by Solanch Lopez, assistant to the city manager, and Matt Anderson, the city’s senior sustainability officer, the program held events like Plogging at Matheson, where participants jogged and picked up trash at the same time (a Swedish concept). The result: 33 joggers collected 165 pounds of trash from the mangroves bike trail. Another 35 participants joined the Solo Cleanup spring program, collecting 253 pounds of trash. 

Few events are as productive as the semi-annual Household Hazardous Waste program. Now six years old, in April 400 cars drove up to City Hall and “diverted” 15 tons of hazardous waste (paint, chemicals, etc.), shredded paper and electronic waste from landfills. The nextone is scheduled for November 6. “I get calls about this event every single day,” says Anderson. “This sets us aside from other cities.” 

The initiatives go beyond those sponsored by the city, with private companies and non-prof- its organizing their own events. Last June, nine employees from the consulting firm Stantec collected 70 pounds of trash left by the tides in the mangrovesat Matheson. On International Coastal Cleanup Day in September, more than 150 volunteers collected 992 pounds of garbage from Matheson Hammock, Cartegena Park, the Gables Waterway – even the shores of the Islands of Cocoplum. 

Volunteers on International Coastal Cleanup

Next on the agenda is anew city ordinance that requires residents to recycle cardboard by breaking down the boxes and putting them with their recycling debris, rather than tossing them into their trash pits with plant debris. The city will be educating residents for this ordinance, which goes into effect in December, with a campaign using the UM Hurricane Ibis mascot. 

As for Lago, family and friends have told him he can be “a little bit obsessive-compulsive” in his insistence on being clean and green. “We slacked off during the pandemic,” he says. “But seeing there are no weeds in the sidewalk, that the windows and roofs are clean – that’s the only way to make sure the City Beautiful lives up to its moniker.”