December 22, 2010 | General

Climate Change Connections: Soil In The City

BioCycle December 2010, Vol. 51, No. 12, p. 59
Sally Brown

My first exposure to the vast cultural differences separating urban and rural America came as a child. Watching Zsa Zsa Gabor in Green Acres trying to understand and adapt to life in rural America with Arnold the pig was an educational experience. At the time, however, education was not my primary focus. So while the TV show planted a seed, it took running a local produce business delivering fruits and vegetables from farms on Long Island to stores and restaurants in New York City to get a true dose of the cultural divide.
This was long before the local food movement even had a name. Perfectly competent, intelligent chefs in Manhattan would try to order locally grown citrus and pineapples from me. Climate change has a ways to go before you’ll find Meyer lemons on Long Island. So I made up a list that I distributed to all of the chefs, showing what you could expect to get locally and when. Strawberries and asparagus, then green beans and corn followed by tomatoes and eventually peppers and eggplant. I would also bring treats from the farms, such as flowers and yellow raspberries. That helped a lot. People loved having something special from the soil in their kitchens. They loved having a connection to the soil and growing things.
Lately, however, the divide between urban and rural has really become clear to me. It seems like the traditionally rural areas, or at least those people who represent them, are becoming curious about urban areas. I’ve been talking a lot to people in the soil science community about the need to bring knowledge of soils – or at least some basic soils fluency – to urban areas. And it seems like they are starting to listen.
The science policy advisor for the Soils Society lives and works in Washington, DC, where he tries to educate our representatives at the Capitol about the importance of soils. To date, he has mostly been talking to representatives from the Ag states. Places in that thick red filling part of the country, sandwiched in between those thin blue crusts on the coasts. These guys don’t want to hear about climate change. And it gets the policy advisor really frustrated to try to talk about science. The next president of the Soils Society and the president after him (we elect far into the future) also get frustrated. They are both from Manhattan. Not the Empire State Building and Times Square Manhattan, but the one without bridges or trees in Central Kansas. One of these guys just can’t understand why his representative who he has been teaching for years is no longer interested in hearing about climate change (Kansas is one of those all red places). I keep telling all of them that it is time to look to the cities where people are hungry to learn about how to grow things.

At the same time, here in the blue wedge, urban agriculture is blossoming. And people are starting to pay some attention to soil. Right now many of them are terrified of it, believing that urban soil must be seething with contaminants. I’ve been talking to a lot of graduate students about how soil is really OK, even if it is next to the street. I encourage people to grow plants in the soil, even plants that you eat (wash first of course). David Montgomery, a professor at the University of Washington and author of the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, told me how his backyard soil has come alive now that they are adding organic amendments to it. He is a trained geomorphologist who, I can assure you, knows nothing about composting facilities and source separated organics.
And it isn’t just about gardens. We are starting to see interest and recognition of the importance of soils for urban infrastructure. See my last column; better soils are the key to sustainable urban infrastructure (along with public transit and good schools).
Kristen, my student whose star is shining very brightly, now has a full time job setting up community gardens in Tacoma, Washington using Tacoma’s Tagro biosolids as the key to gardening success. Her position is funded by the City of Tacoma and the Cascade Land Conservancy. She is working about 60 hours a week because so many people are interested and so many people want gardens. That is why she is so behind on writing her thesis, which is about where community gardeners get information about soils and how much they know about soils. We have been meeting to talk about her data and how to best structure her thesis. She has collected data from Seattle, Tacoma and Boston. The overriding theme of her results is that very few people in the gardens know anything about soils. The science policy advisor from the Soil Society finally gave her a call and is realizing the importance of this connection. She is slated to talk to congressional staffers in February.

What this means for those who manage organics is that there is a vacuum to be filled. Organics are generated in cities – cities where people care about the environment but haven’t got a clue what they are talking about. Well-minded people in cities need to learn that one part per trillion of a compound is really OK. They need to learn that wasting organics in landfills for “clean energy” is really the same as throwing them away. In short, people need to learn that caring for their soils is a key to caring about their environment and having fresh greens for dinner.
Soils professionals may slowly be making their way towards paying attention to urban areas. An extension service with effective urban outreach would be a wonderful thing. Teaching people about the importance of soils in saving the Earth and the importance of organics in doing this is essential. If the majority – or even some vocal minority – of urban dwellers has some level of knowledge of soils and organics, those organics won’t end up in landfills.
Making representatives and officials in urban government understand about soils would do so much for the organics management industry. The easiest way to do this might be to start with the people that they represent, people who also are potential customers. While national organizations such as the Soil Society start to rally around this and develop effective educational tools, residuals managers can step up as local communicators to fill in the knowledge vacuum and be the best source of information on soils in places where people know the most about concrete.
I would encourage readers of this column to encourage people to get their hands dirty. Give away pots with pretty herbs planted in your composts. Host open houses, and compost giveaways. Tell people how to use this compost, how it helps the soil and how the soil helps the environment. When you send a load of compost to a community garden send a person or some literature or a web link with information on soils. We know that organics are the key to healthy soils. This is knowledge that needs to be shared with people whose knowledge of soils and earth system processes is limited to no white shoes after Labor Day and linen only after Memorial Day.
If you want to get people to not just toss out their smelly leftovers, you have to give them a good reason. Taking care of soils and the environment is a pretty good candidate. This is also true for city managers – if they understand the value of these residuals for keeping the planet healthy, keeping storm water out of the treatment systems, and building healthy communities (with healthy community gardens), they might just consider reworking how the trash is picked up and how they fertilize their parks.

Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – authors this regular column. E-mail Dr. Brown at
p. 60
Calling All Brownfields To Urban Ag Projects
BIOCYCLE will feature a Special Report on urban agriculture projects developed on brownfields sites in the March 2011 issue as part of BioCycle’s involvement in the U.S. EPA’s 14th National Brownfields Conference, April 3-5, 2011 in Philadelphia ( brownfields/bfconf.htm). The report will center around profiling brownfields to urban agriculture projects that are using compost and/or composting on-site, as part of building soil health and managing garden wastes and food scraps. BioCycle is collaborating with US EPA’s brownfields and urban agricultural workgroup, which recently launched a website: brownfields/urbanag.
We are requesting project profiles to include in the BioCycle Special Report. Write-ups, about 500 words in length, should provide a brief summary of the site and project, size, costs to establish the urban ag project (including soil remediation), savings resulting from using compost, data on improvements in soil quality, etc. Please include a point of contact for additional information, as well as several photos of the project.
Deadline for submissions is February 15, 2011. Please send the write-ups to Dan Sullivan, Managing Editor, BioCycle,; call 610-967-4135, ext 27 for more information or any questions.

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