Health of City Soil is a Dirty Secret

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...


When I read this article I was surprised how surprised I was.

The post I’m speaking of, entitled Newbie Urban Gardeners May Not Be Aware Of Soil’s Dirty Legacy talks about urban farming and how it is a great, important, and happening trend.

What the post brilliantly explains is in the enthusiastic rush to grow our own food on rooftops and vacant city lots, the idea of soil health hasn’t been given the prominence it deserves.

The problem is crystallized in this paragraph written by Maanvi Singh on NPR’s blog, The Salt:

Most gardeners understand that the soil in big cities is often contaminated with lead–and know to get their soil tested. But the researchers’ interviews with 70 urban gardeners in Baltimore revealed that most are pretty clueless about how to avoid other types of contaminants–like heavy metals and asbestos–from getting into their vegetables.

And why should I be taken aback by this information? I intellectually know contaminates exist in city soil. That is a completely, one-hundred-percent obvious fact.

Urban growing spaces are amazing. Let’s keeping doing this, but let’s do it safely. -Brent Kim

While putting up stories about urban farming and cheerleading the idea of folks in cities cultivating crops and, maybe even a few chickens for fresh eggs–the importance of healthy soil somehow escaped my view.

I can’t be alone on this. DOH!

Ms. Singh continues:

Part of the problem is that “there might be contaminants that [gardeners] can’t test for,” says Brent Kim, a program officer at the Center for a Livable Future. Most soil tests look for lead, cadmium and arsenic, he tells The Salt. But they don’t test things like petrochemicals left behind by cars, or cleaning solvents, which might have seeped into the soil from an old laundromat.

Many of these chemicals–including the cleaning solvents laundromats used back in the day, and chemicals found in the exhaust of cars– are carcinogenic, and they’re dangerous to ingest or even breathe in. Asbestos left over from a building demolished years ago can cause lung problems, as well. And children are especially vulnerable to all of these substances, Kim says.

While writing about potential problems growing in city soil, the article illuminates some practical steps city farmers can take to mitigate potential dangers. These include:

– try to learn the history of your plot of land

– have your soil tested

– be careful about the materials you use to build raised beds

A link to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health can be found in the article. Aptly titled, Urban Soil Safety, it’s a great go-to resource for urban food growers interested in their growing soil’s vitality and safety.

Ms. Singh concludes her article with another quote from Brent Kim with the Center for a Livable Future:

“I see these urban growing spaces as these oases in the middle of these urban environments,” Kim says. “They bring communities together, and they help people save money on fresh produce. Urban growing spaces are amazing,” he says. “Let’s keeping doing this, but let’s do it safely.”

Maanvi Singh’s article does a great job shining a bright light on something of the utmost importance–city soil health.

This time I’m not surprised.

The article Newbie Urban Gardeners May Not Be Aware Of Soil’s Dirty Legacy was written by Maanvi Singh and originally appeared on NPR’s blog, The Salt.

Are you an urban food grower? What steps did you take to ensure your soil’s health?

Photo credit: Craig McCord