Students create social campaign to improve Monona leaf management practices

UW-Madison students, guided by Neil Stenhouse, identify ways to engage the Monona community in environmental preservation thanks to on-the-ground research.


Devin R. Larsen


Shelly Strom, Marshall Curry


City of Monona, WI, United States
Community Size
8,045 (2018 Census Estimation)
University of Wisconsin - Madison
UniverCity Year
Case Type
Project Stories
EPA Region 5, USA

In the time of exacerbated climate change, more cities around the world are focusing on environmental protection and sustainability practices. One practice regularly discussed is the management of fallen leaves. As leaves decompose, they release chemicals including nitrogen and phosphorus, which, due to rainfall, can be washed into nearby bodies of water. When excessive amounts of these chemicals collect in bodies of water, fertilization takes place, leading to toxic algal blooms—which can have a toxic effect on exposed aquatic life, animals, and humans. 

The City of Monona, which has 8,000 residents and is bounded by lakes on two sides, and the Sustainability Committee of Monona—a group of local government employees implementing sustainable living practices—asked for a marketing plan which would address the necessity of residential behavioral changes to improve leaf disposal practices.

The UniverCity Year program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an EPIC-Network member, was created to help local government and community partners with identified sustainability and livability projects. Participating University faculty incorporate community-identified projects into classes, and provide students with on-the-ground experience in support of a more sustainable and livable future for the partnered community. 

During the 2016 to 2017 academic year, the City of Monona was chosen to partner with the UniverCity Year program due to its proximity to the university and for strong support from Mayor Bob Miller. 

Professor Stenhouse’s students begin interviewing residents 

The UniverCity Year program partnered UW-Madison’s Life Science Communication 515: Public Information Campaigns & Programs with the City of Monona to improve residents’ leaf management practices. At the direction of Professor Neil Stenhouse, students focused their attention on two audiences—who they interviewed, whether over-the-phone of in-person—to craft a social campaign around improving Monona environmental practices:

“Our primary audience is residents currently unengaged with environmental issues. Our goal for this segment is to get them to keep leaves out of the street and to pile them onto their curb for pickup. Our secondary audience is those already engaging in curbside leaf pickup, we want to shift these people into even more ideal leaf disposal behaviors by pushing them to compost or mulch their leaves. This would decrease the number of leaves on the curb that blow back into the street” (UniverCity Year project final report).

Creating social slogans to persuade residents 

The students’ campaign was structured around shifting behavior. First, they created numerous campaign slogans which could be used to refine social behaviors. One example was the campaign slogan “don’t be that neighbor,” which worked on the expectation that residents would be persuaded by the power of social norms—i.e. “if you don’t take care of your leaves your neighbors will judge you” (UniverCity Year project final report).

Improving residential leaf management knowledge 

Second, students provided numerous recommendations to improve community knowledge and engagement, including: 

  • Better inform residents about when collection trucks will be in their neighborhood, whether thanks to the MyMonona site, Facebook, email, or automated text messages
  • Remove the city from the process and inform residents about the benefits of composting and mulching 
  • Develop lesson plans to teach school children how to turn fallen leaves into usable soil, which they will in turn tell their parents about

With a student-created masterplan for a leaf management marketing campaign in hand, the City of Monona should expect to curb the excessive pileup of leaves, convincing residents to perform more environmentally-sound yard cleanup practices.   

Read the full story of the partnership.

Read the final student report delivered to the local gov/community partner.

“We want to shift these people into even more ideal leaf disposal behaviors by pushing them to compost or mulch their leaves. This would decrease the number of leaves on the curb that blow back into the street.”

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