How to Make NYC Safe for Urban Farming

Thanks to gasoline emissions and paint dust, the surface soil in many parts of New York City is contaminated with lead. But recent research from The Graduate Center and Brooklyn College offers hope to would-be urban farmers and others looking to grow food in urban dirt.

A woman adds seeds to a garden bed.  
According to the investigators, covering contaminated soil with a layer of clean sediment, available through the NYC Clean Soil Bank, significantly reduces the risk of exposure to lead.

Mixing this sediment with compost also makes for a clean soil that urban gardeners can use to grow safe crops.
Currently, the NYC Clean Soil Bank, part of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation, matches construction projects that have surplus, clean soil with construction projects that need soil. But the researchers see a potential new use.
Providing that sediment to gardeners would be a huge boon to community garden initiatives, the researchers say. The service is extremely low cost and saves the resources it would take to ship soil from other parts of the country.
“This project kills three birds with one stone,” says Professor Zhongqi “Joshua” Cheng (GC/Brooklyn College, Earth and Environmental Sciences), co-founder of the NYC Urban Soils Institute and a co-author of the studies (published in Landscape and Urban Planning and the Journal of Environmental Management). Using this clean sediment helps solve soil contamination problems, reduces solid waste from construction sites, and facilitates urban agriculture. “All of these contribute to the sustainability of cities.”
The bank, the researchers found, exchanges enough soil in one year to cover 1,380 community gardens with a protective six-inch layer of soil. Even if a plot of land isn’t growing vegetables, a coat of clean dirt lowers the risk of lead exposure by stopping the dirt from being kicked up into breathable air.
Creating clean soil from waste-stream materials “maximizes the many benefits of urban green spaces and agriculture,” says co-author and Graduate Center Ph.D. student Sara Perl Egendorf, “which include food justice, STEM education, and the expansion of green jobs.”
The researchers continue to monitor lead levels at their New York City test sites. “We are also looking more extensively into compost quality and the potential of making soils by mixing clean sediments with biosolids,” Cheng says.
Co-authors include postdoctoral research assistant Maha Deeb; undergraduate student Victor Flores; Professor Peter Groffman (GC/Brooklyn College, Earth and Environmental Sciences) who is also a member of The Graduate Center’s Advanced Science Research Center Environmental Sciences Initiative; and Graduate Center Ph.D. student Anna Paltseva (Earth and Environmental Sciences).

Submitted on: OCT 3, 2018

Category: Earth and Environmental Sciences | Faculty | General GC News | Student News