The Dirty Problem of Urban Gardening (And What To Do About It)

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urban gardens New York City

Setbacks can get discouraging, like with recent news out of New York that community garden plots are coming back tested with lots of toxins. Lead and other heavy metals continue to present in foods harvested from reclaimed urban plots turned to gardens.

For people trying to up-end the problem of high living costs in the city by supplying community food, all while improving air quality and environment, this is a crushing blow.

Food presenting with toxins is a huge problem. You thought pesticide was bad? As Tulane pharmacologist Howard Mielke told the NY Post, “You’re playing Russian roulette with this. There is no known safe level of lead exposure.”

I like my minerals, but I’m dubious about a lead supplement.

Urban farming advocates are, to put it lightly, bummed about all this, but should we really be surprised?

Get the lead out

Fact is, lots of urban plots in all kinds of big cities are packed with toxins. It’s something we can get around, but you got to know it’s there before you can resolve it.

This 2009 NY Times article says it’s not just a matter of ingesting the foods grown in contaminated soil, it’s also about the dangers of working with it.  As they explain:

Excessive lead in soil is the legacy not only of lead paint but also of leaded gasoline, lead plumbing and lead arsenate pesticides. Although these products were outlawed decades ago, their remnants linger in the environment. Lead batteries and automotive parts, particularly wheel balancing weights, are still widely used and are sources of soil contamination.

Soil is likely to contain high levels of lead if it is near any structure built before 1978, when lead-based paint was taken off the market, or if a building of that vintage was ever demolished on the site. Pesticides containing lead were often used on fruit trees, so land close to old orchards is also of concern. And beware of soil around heavily trafficked roadways; it, too, is probably laced with lead. But environmental engineers and soil experts said any place is potentially tainted.

The big picture

Nature isn’t exactly quick-moving. This is why climatologists are in such a hellfire rush to see us change our energy-consuming ways. Healing takes a long time. For interesting look at the pace of nature’s reclamation of land, check out comparison photos from Google Streetview year-by-year in the un-urbaning of Detroit as the once-great Motor City falls into ruins.

Yes, the decay is awful, but even after 4-5 years, there’s a lot of reclamation yet to happen. And think of all the lead plumbing and paint getting absorbed by nature in the process, complicating it all.

We humans see things through the parameters of calendars. Days, years. If you buy the science, this planet’s a cool 4.54 billion years old. But hey, man, that gas station lot should be properly detoxed a year from July, right?

cityscape and farmland

The long view

This long-view perspective is why folks like me have issues with the lifespan of radiation and nuclear waste. The Earth has the time to heal, but the human race doesn’t. What’s a few more million years to a 4.54-billion-year-old planet?

Every now and then, some brilliantly-cynical-but-ultimately-right nerd makes the point that, whatever we do to the planet, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s already proven over the ages that it’s a master of remediation.

Dinosaurs, comets, ice ages, land of fire — pfft, the Earth has beaten it all and come back. These guys say, yeah, humans, we might become extinct and that’d be a real bummer, but the Earth won’t care. It’ll just have a new normal of some kind, limping along until just the perfect set of variables occurs and poof! New life, new ecosystems. Maybe just no humans to enjoy it.

Not like any of that’s going to help your local community plot.

But wait, there’s science!

Lucky for us, we’ve got science on our side.

For every thing we know, there’s a thousand things we don’t, but through science and the oral history of farmers through the ages, we’ve got some pretty good ideas of how to overcome adversity in agriculture. And we’re learning new tricks all the time.

Whether it’s nuclear-weight bed-liners or an aggressive plan of phytoremediation, we don’t have to leave our toxic garden plots up to the hands of fate. We can use science and planning to overcome the pollution.

The fact is, contaminated land is more common than we think. When plots go unused, the last thing we should do is just let them sit there. In a perfect world, there’d be folks responsible for getting a phytoremediation plan going for vacant lots, dormant gas stations, abandoned industrial lands, and fast.

urban farmer

Still, time’s a-tickin’

Agricultural land is constantly shifting. Look at the drought in California and the ever-decreasing aquifers that threaten the state’s future agriculture. In England, they’re facing a time of topsoil turmoil — experts there state British farmlands have maybe 100 crops left before the lands become unfeasible for farming. Yet the soil in urban areas has a lot to offer, and the future of farming may have to mean a creative adaptation of urban planning.

An Independent article explains it all:

Despite the traditional perception that there is a green and pleasant land outside the grey, barren landscape of our cities, researchers from the University of Sheffield found that on average urban plots of soil were richer in nutrients than many farms.

Sampling local parks, allotments and gardens in urban areas, Dr Jill Edmondson showed that the ground was significantly healthier than that of arable fields. Allotment soil had 32% more organic carbon, 36% higher carbon to nitrogen ratios, 25% higher nitrogen and was significantly less compacted.

Professor Nigel Dunnett, also of the University of Sheffield, said that in order to ensure we can produce food for future generations we must start to see towns and cities as the future of farming. Read the whole article here.

We may be unrealistic in thinking we can reclaim urban spaces and just automatically plant food gardens. It may mean a few years of off-gasing, soil culturing, and phytoremediation before we can turn to growing food crops for urban dweller diets, but once we stop thinking in terms of Earth years, those time constraints aren’t so awful.

The old adage that Rome wasn’t built in a day should serve to remind us that most things worth doing aren’t short-term endeavors. Nature is a delicate, brilliant thing that evolves and perfects with time. Our urban farming should reflect this.

Tag-teaming solutions

I’m not a big fan of just turning the ground over, slapping industrial-proof plant-bedliners to prevent absorption, and trucking in new soil to work with. I think that’s akin to a Band-Aid over a wound, and it doesn’t jive with my whole-health point of view. I think we need to tackle the soil challenges head-on, because it’s obvious these lands are fertile, just like England is discovering, but they’re just contaminated at the same time. Look at life in Chernobyl, where nature

We can work with the contamination while we fight it, ensuring we gain many years of useful, arable urban soils to help sustain city life well into the future. If we use phytoremediation in stages — plant a few seasons of varying plants to absorb various contaminants — along with other scientific remedies, it’ll take a little extra time, but we’ll have healthier land to live upon for the long-term.

Re-defining success in urban farming

There may not be tasty carrots and apples grown downtown to enjoy for 5 or 10 years, but at least the land will be healthfully reclaimed in a step-by-step process, with a long-view for redefining urban living well into the 22nd century and beyond.

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a Victoria BC-based writer on a variety of topics. Here on the BuildDirect blog, she specializes in writing about smaller, urban spaces. How do you make the most of your smaller space? How do you decorate it to suit you? And how do you wage the war against clutter and win? This is Steff’s specialty.