Lancaster University: The overlooked importance of urban soils

When we think about soils we often imagine wide expanses of rural farmland – but the growing importance of soils in our towns and cities needs to be better understood, a new paper highlights.

Recognising that this is a new and under-researched field, researchers from Lancaster Environment Centre and Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts have conducted a review into the existing body of research on urban soils to discover what is currently known about this often forgotten resource.

Their review found that although urban soils are often overlooked they provide lots of important ecosystem services such as:

• Carbon storage

• Water storage

• Flood mitigation

• Support for trees which capture air pollution and buffer urban heat islands

• Urban food growing

• Nutrient cycling

• Urban biodiversity

• A cultural record of our history

• Supporting greenspace for physical and mental wellbeing

They found most previous research in this area has focused on soil biological activity, nutrient cycling and carbon storage. There has less been less research on water-related services, urban food and cultural services such as recreation, sense of place or urban soil as a cultural record of history.

Roisin O’Riordan, lead author of the study, said: “Our study is novel because urban soil is normally forgotten about or considered to be so damaged by urbanisation that it no longer functions properly. Our review highlights the benefits that we know urban soils provide and brings together previous research into these benefits. But we also recognise that there is a lot more we still need to understand about the state of, and role of urban soils, and we have identified areas where more research is needed.

“Addressing these gaps will enable urban soils to be better understood and accounted for in the planning, design and management of urban areas in order to support future human wellbeing and urban ecosystem health.”

The researchers highlight that future research needs to focus on the multifunctionality of urban soil – the ability of the soil to provide numerous benefits and ecosystem services for people living in cities. They also note that more studies need to take place in cities and towns across the world to build greater understanding on urban soils across different contexts and climates. Most existing research on urban soils has taken place in Europe and North America, with little undertaken in Africa, Australia or South America.

The paper, ‘The ecosystem services of urban soils: A review’ has been published by the journal Geoderma and was selected as their editors’ choice for March. The work forms part of the EPSRC funded ‘Soil Value’ project, which is recognising soil as a vital infrastructure that supports numerous important services.

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