Gotham Gazette

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Growing to Love New York City’s Soils

A community garden (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As urbanites, it is easy to disregard the ground beneath our feet. As we sidestep tumbleweeds of trash or awkwardly circumvent waste from any of New York City’s 508,000 registered dogs, we tend to lose not only the forest and the trees, but also the dirt below. Even when we are in one of the city’s 1,700 parks, we probably are paying more attention to our friends or a good book than to what is growing underneath us. The dirty truth, however, is that we deeply rely on soils, and now more than ever. But, when was the last time we really took stock of the stuff?

World Soil Day, which happened earlier this month on December 5, focused on the theme: “Soils: Where food begins.” But for New York City residents, this topic can seem disconnected from our daily lives. Urban soils are an often-forgotten, critically important part of the city’s infrastructure. Community gardens and urban farms might be few and far between, and many New Yorkers may never have seen food growing in the city, but soils are all around us. All that is needed is a discerning eye to realize their presence and potential. Examining soils can help us understand the health of our city, performing a checkup, literally from the ground up. 

Below, we outline four ways to promote soil health in the city, particularly for interactive soils in gardens, and get New Yorkers in touch with the soil, for their wellbeing and the quality of the shared environment. Whether it’s tree wells or parks or community gardens, urban soils represent a complex system we must appreciate.

1. Seeing Local Soils as an Intersectional Solution
Although 19 billion pounds of food are distributed throughout New York City each year – about 2,000 pounds per person on average – more than 1 million New Yorkers are still food insecure. In certain communities, like the South Bronx, this rate jumps from the citywide 12.5% to one-in-four. Rather than simply increasing food deliveries to funnel nutritious foods into these areas, exacerbating air pollution in communities that already suffer from suffocating amounts of tailpipe emissions, fresh food could be produced and supplied locally. 

Programs, such as Farms at NYCHA and GreenThumb Community Gardens, do exactly this, expanding access to healthy foods while also providing valuable training and jobs. Community-centered urban agriculture might not be able to, on its own, serve the city all its food. Yet, when community members drive food production locally, it gives them pride and dignity in being able to provide for themselves while promoting food security in their neighborhoods.

More so, community gardens not only offer accessible food, they also enhance a community’s green space. They are more prevalent in communities with below-average access to parkland. Healthy soils are also climate-resilient soils – absorbing water during flash flooding or storm surges. Thus, they fulfill the purposes of food production and green space, while also giving the city much-needed protection against climate change.

2. Healthy Soils Promote Healthy People, More Than Just With Nutrition
In addition to food nutrients, community gardens convey bushels of benefits. They reduce stress, and soil microbes can even boost our serotonin levels – an important feature, with over 8% of New Yorkers suffering from moderate to severe depression.

Gardeners are also generally more active, which improves physical functioning. One segment of New York City’s population in particular – older adults – would especially benefit from getting down and dirty by stimulating both mind and body. But there are other important considerations as well: time spent in a garden can improve quality of life outcomes in dementia patients, which means that as New York City fosters an aging population, community gardens can play a big role in how we care for our older adults.

On the other end of the life spectrum, children benefit from getting into soils, too, and already 824 schools have garden programs and 140 schools are a part of the educational Farm to School program. Soils act like a living classroom, allowing hands-on learning in and out of school to teach about where food comes from, the microbiome, and other topics. This can all foster healthy relationships with food, and reduce obesity.

The city has educational programs centered around farming already in place, such as workshops at farmers markets and childcare centers. Other community educational spaces exist, including action centers leading events and outreach to seniors. But New York City has just some 600 community gardens to serve its more than 8.4 million residents. The goal of having gardens in all schools, in neighborhoods, and close to seniors is a multi-benefit one.

3. Put New York City’s Waste to Work
Soil is as much about where food begins, as where food ends. Compost-amended soil has better chemistry and fosters more biodiversity. In New York City’s community gardens, compost has even been shown to mitigate stormwater runoff, thereby attenuating flooding. Composting fights two battles at once: combatting the immense amount of organic matter that is sent to landfills and providing nutrients and benefits to urban soils for gardens, parks, tree wells, and other spaces.

Despite its continued importance, the city’s composting system has been in flux for the past three years, as COVID-19 disrupted momentum. A recent municipal pilot program in Queens has had success, collecting 5.7 million pounds of waste in just six weeks. This sets an example for curbside, no-opt-in-necessary programs, which could be rolled out in the future across boroughs. This can also put people in better touch with their food cycles.

And food waste isn’t the only kind of waste being considered in soil. The NYC PUREsoil program helps turn clean, deeply-excavated earth from construction into clean fill for community organizations, like gardens, rather than removing it as waste. Using what New York City already has by way of ground materials and pre-soil (aka food) and putting it to good use for the city’s soil fertility is a win on waste.

4. Equitably Incentivize Healthy Urban Soils and Ecosystems
In 2021, New York State followed the growing trend to prioritize soil. The State’s Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act put into law a definition for soil health, suggestions for monitoring it, and encouraged collaboration between scientists and practitioners to better the quality of our agricultural soils.

The letter of this law does all of the above for rural, suburban, and urban soils. But New Yorkers know our city is unique, and this includes our soils – both their quality and how they are (under)prioritized. Part of the problem with urban soils is that economically, they are viewed as lacking what makes rural soils so important: food production. In a city, though, soils provide the services that we have described above and more. The value of urban soils should be incentivized, economically or otherwise. 

To any pedestrian, walking down the sidewalk might give the impression that the concrete jungle doesn’t need or value its soil. But the lives of New Yorkers tell a different story.

Community gardens produce food and flowers on the land. We benefit from the protections that healthy soils offer when facing storms and excessive heat, both of which will only increase in their frequency and severity in the future. Coming out of this year’s World Soil Day, we are reminded we can all play a part in helping the Big Apple live up to its name – getting in touch with our food, getting down and dirty to care for city soils, and spreading the word about the brown gold beneath our feet.

Karl Palmquist is the Vice-Chair of the Sierra Club NYC Group and a systems biologist. He has worked on soil health issues at the state level, and developed science outreach programs for students to learn about soil. Mallory Rutigliano is a sustainability professional based in New York who holds an MPA in environmental science and policy and has worked in the fields of global policy, healthful behavior, and sustainable finance. She works on climate resiliency for the City of New York and is an active community volunteer. All opinions expressed in this column are the authors' alone.

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