It’s Not Easy Being Green: Assessing the Challenges of Urban Community Gardening

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From vertical gardens to succulent gardens to community veggie gardens like the San Francisco garden pictured above, city dwellers all around us have started embracing their (hopefully) green thumbs.  For urbanites in particular, community gardening provides us with much needed “outside time” with likeminded individuals, with the added gift of hyper-local produce available throughout the growing season. These benefits have led to increases in residential and community garden participation in major cities across the US.

While many people are jumping on the garden-fresh bandwagon to reap the obvious, verdant benefits, it is important to consider the potential side effects that come alongside urban farming. Urban soil is not only closer to possible sources of pollution, like traffic and industrial areas, but could also contain residual chemicals from past land use. Residential land previously occupied by industrial buildings has been found to contain dangerous levels of toxins like lead, which can poison residents and contaminate food grown on-site. But it doesn’t take a former factory to contaminate your backyard. Soil can absorb and hold toxins left over from something as small as a previous homeowners dumping of cleaning water down the drain or off the back porch.

Researchers from Baltimore published an article in PLOS ONE earlier this month assessing Baltimore community gardeners’ knowledge of soil contamination risks and explored what steps can be taken to mitigate the dangers of urban pollution in urban gardens.

The authors, hailing from Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, and the Community Greening Resource Network, conducted interviews with Baltimore’s community garden members, and found that unfortunately, the gardeners generally seem to have low levels of concern about potential contaminants in their soil. Those working in established community gardens were least concerned as they often assumed that any issues with soil contamination had been addressed in the early days of the garden’s use.

When participants were asked what soil contaminants they are aware of, lead was the most common response—likely due to city interventions concerning lead poisoning—with 66% of surveyed gardeners mentioning it in their interviews. The study results also indicate that gardeners are more worried about the presence of pesticides and other added chemicals than most other residual chemicals in the soil. Soil quality and fertility even took greater precedence for some gardeners than the presence of contaminants.

By interviewing Baltimore officials knowledgeable about community gardening practices and soil contamination issues, the researchers determined key steps in assuring the safety of gardening sites. Above all, officials suggested the creation of a central source of information related to soil contamination concerns. Similar projects relating to regulation and urban agriculture are already underway in places like Los Angeles, though these resources aim to help residents navigate the maze of confusing legislation related to urban agriculture, and focus less on providing information on how to evaluate the safety of specific plots of land.

The authors suggest other important ways to determine the safety of a garden site, including learning about the site’s past uses and testing the soil for lingering chemicals, both of which might not seem necessary to those untrained in urban planning or chemical analysis. They also recommend that officials in urban areas provide services that will encourage use of these tools and help gardeners find and interpret the results of soil testing or historical research.

In the meantime, the authors suggest limiting exposure to potentially contaminated land. For instance, we should minimize contact with dirt from garden sites by washing our hands and taking off shoes before entering any indoor spaces. Many interviewed gardeners have tried to mitigate this problem by using raised beds, which they believe eliminates concern about contaminants in homegrown vegetables. However, researchers have found limitations with this method, and it should not be seen as a fix-all. Raised beds do not prevent contamination from soil around the beds, which can still be ingested or tracked into the home, and surrounding pollutants have been known to blow into beds or seep into the soil from treated wood used to build the structures.

Urban community gardening is a trend that is here to stay, and we have it to thank for fresher local produce, greener surroundings, a greater sense of community, and for the physical, and sometimes therapeutic, activity it provides. The potential dangers associated with gardening in urban areas probably do not outweigh the benefits, as long as gardeners remain diligent and become better informed. Though their study focused on a limited group, this paper’s findings draw attention to the fact that they’re not. So, next time you’re digging into a grassy patch in your backyard with visions of veggies or working in your local community garden, take a minute to think about what you know about your area, discuss past developments with longtime residents, and above all, clean up afterward.

More information on soil testing and good gardening practices can be found on this site from the EPA.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to clarify that the statistics on gardener awareness of soil contaminants measured only awareness, and not concern for the soil they work with. It was also changed to clarify that raised beds do provide some protection against soil contamination from the surrounding area, though they have limitations.

Citation: Kim BF, Poulsen MN, Margulies JD, Dix KL, Palmer AM, et al. (2014) Urban Community Gardeners’ Knowledge and Perceptions of Soil Contaminant Risks. PLoS ONE 9(2): e87913. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087913

Image: Tenderloin People’s Garden by SPUR

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