The Healthy Soil Scape imagines what putting healthy soils at the centre of urban landscapes could look like. It considers the ways in which humans and non-humans look after each other through the medium of soil, and how these caring relationships can be strengthened - for example, through separating out and redistributing the vast amounts of organic ‘waste’ produced by cities, to people growing healthy food and building soils at the same time.
Soils are a commons which create benefits for everyone
Healthy soils provide benefits which stretch in time and space beyond their current geographical location - through carbon capture, flooding prevention, water management, food production, supporting biodiversity, and so on. Soils should be viewed in a similar way to air and water, as something which it is in everyone’s interest to actively take care of. Plants grown in healthy soils result in more nutritious food for people, by providing essential elements and micronutrients, and healthy soils can store more carbon. The processes, such as excavation, pollution or depletion of nutrients which cause damage to existing soils must be stopped, and these soils helped to recover, as well as new soils being created. Humans can actively support the microbiome and structure of the soil by growing using agroecological methods, and building soils locally as opposed to importing soils extracted from ecosystems often under threat elsewhere (e.g. through peat-based compost). However, with many people in urban areas alienated from the land, growing food, and soil, general knowledge about and connection with local soils are often limited, even amongst growers. Work is therefore needed to deepen people’s understanding of soil, and the life it supports, in all its complexity, and how to care for it.
The 'Roving Microscope’ is a community-based initiative that is looking into soil and exploring more-than-human ecologies based in and around Bethnal Green Nature Reserve in Hackney. With many people in urban areas alienated from the land, growing food, and soil, general knowledge about and connection with local soils are often limited. The Roving Microscope tries to directly answer this situation by bringing people together to look at the soil in microscopic detail and see how it is alive. As Hari Byles of Roving Microscope says: “Soil is a living community that cares for us as we care for it” .
Healthy soils provide benefits which stretch in time and space beyond their current geographical location - through carbon capture, flooding prevention, water management, food production, supporting biodiversity, and so on. Soils should be viewed in a similar way to air and water, as something which it is in everyone’s interest to actively take care of. Humans can actively support the microbiome and structure of the soil by growing using agroecological methods, and building soils locally as opposed to importing soils extracted from ecosystems often under threat elsewhere. Work such as that of the Roving Microscope share with the political agroecology movement an ethos of soil care. In order to insert principles of agroecology within the hearts and minds of urban communities, work is needed to deepen people’s understanding of soil, the life it supports, and how to care for it.
Soils should connect people, species, and place
Although issues such as soil care, healthy soil life, and nutrient cycles are receiving more and more attention in urban communities, there is still a rift between urban discussions about soil on the one hand and soil issues as experienced by agroecological farmers on the other. Too often, urban discussions and pilot projects focusing on growing are becoming disconnected from the soil rather than reconnecting with it. This can be seen, for example, in the disproportionate attention paid to vertical agriculture and roof gardens in contemporary urban agriculture debates. Such projects often depend on soil extraction elsewhere for the production of the necessary soil substrates. Substituting soils entirely, for other high tech ‘solutions’ such as hydroponics, does not allow for examining the histories of place, creating the interspecies solidarities needed in the present, and the re-imagining of more just futures, that soil enables. We also see in practice that the (perceived) possibility of creating 'new' soils on rooftops, for example, is used as an excuse to avoid questioning the ongoing destruction of remaining, historical soils in urban fringes.
Conversations and pilot projects related to food growing in urban areas are frequently becoming disconnected from the soil rather than encouraging reconnection with it. Take La Cité Maraîchère for example, a vertical farming project in Romainville, Paris. A project of five million euros, of which 2.5 million of state funding. In itself a noteworthy project, but one that becomes problematic when it is used as an excuse for the ongoing destruction of remaining historical soils in urban fringes and beyond. There is a disproportionate attention paid to vertical agriculture and roof gardens in contemporary urban agriculture debates. These often depend on soil extraction elsewhere, or remove soil from the process entirely in the case of high tech ‘solutions’ such as hydroponics. Imagine what would be possible if this type of funding would be redirected towards the development of soil-based growing, for example enabling access to land and resources and nurturing new solidarities and new relations between soils, species and people.
Soil-making processes should centre the needs of agroecological farmers and growers
As centres of population and consumption, cities produce large volumes of organic ‘waste’, which could be used to rebuild soils through compost. Currently, many streams of organic matter which could be useful for building soils and growing food are lost to sewage infrastructure, digested to make ‘biogas’, or combined with other forms of waste and incinerated or dumped in landfill. Further research into the benefits of particular ‘waste’ streams (as is being undertaken in Rosario), and new logistics of ‘waste’ processing and redistribution, are needed to reconnect organic ‘waste’ with people who can utilise it to build soils. Related to the point above, discussions about using urban organic ‘waste’ flows for food production are very often dominated by an urban perspective in which farmers’ perspectives are of secondary importance. Such discussions often start from existing urban waste flows and then seek to optimise or adjust them to make them 'suitable' for reuse in food-producing practices. However, this does not necessarily correspond to the needs and wishes of agroecological farmers. They are often only interested in a very limited amount of carefully collected and very specific types of nutrients - from urban environments or elsewhere - which meet the principles of their approach to farming (e.g. vegan or organically certified). This has been one of the difficulties for Quantum Waste, a partner in this project (discussed further below) - matching the compost they could produce from organic urban waste, to a product sought by agroecological growers. Discussions about resourcing nutrients in (peri)urban environments should start much more from the specific needs of agroecological actors and then look at how to find, produce, collect, store and make them available in an appropriate way.
Usually discussions about repurposing the large volumes of organic ‘waste’ produced in cities for soil building and food growing start from an urban perspective where the views of farmers are sometimes seen as of less importance. However, farmers are rather apprehensive about the use of urban organic waste and are interested in specific nutrient sources, especially those that are hard to resource on farm. There are examples of farmers working with the parks & green departments to recuperate for example leaves, but a lot of barriers need to be tackled such as transport or legislation.
Thinking about resourcing nutrients in (peri)urban environments could start much more from the specific needs of agroecological actors and then look at how to find, produce, collect, store and make them available in an appropriate way. This has been the strategy followed by the urban agroecology centre in Rosario, where research is being carried out on urban waste streams to ensure farmers are clear on what they contain and whether they are suitable for incorporation into agroecological production.
Through the combination of these strands, the Healthy Soil Scape wants to contribute to a shift from the current situation in urban areas, where soils are largely forgotten, trapped, damaged, separated, and imported, to a ‘healthy soil-scape’, where soils are appreciated, nurtured, built in situ, stewarded over the long term, alive, and connected to the local community.
The Healthy Soil-Scape hopes to inspire cities to place soil at the centre of their thinking and action, to enable healthier and more socially and environmentally just spaces to emerge. Soil connects to food growing, political mobilisation, public health, and the climate and biodiversity emergencies amongst many other issues, and protecting, remediating and building healthy soils for humans and non-humans should be prioritised over the long term.
One way to begin doing this is by building people’s connections with their local soils, making them visible as living ecosystems, not just ‘dirt’ underfoot - investigating their history, getting our hands dirty, building our knowledge of soil biology and chemistry through low-tech testing methods, tasting the food grown in local soils, and nurturing a sense of collective responsibility to act to safeguard and steward them. In this way, soils could be appreciated as ‘of somewhere’ and not simply something to be brought in in bags when required. This idea links to both the Productive Housing Estate (looking at complementary relationships between housing and food growing spaces) and Farming the Fragmented Land, treating soils as being of a place, seeking to better understand their specific characteristics, and making strategic decisions about the best things to grow there, whilst also seeing them as part of a larger whole.
New farmers seeking access to land in the peri-urban fringe often end up with soils that have been poorly cared for. Soils may have suffered from soil erosion, have been compacted and partly sealed, may have been contaminated, etc. The Agroecology Lab of the Université Libre de Bruxelles built together with farmers a guide to make a simple assessment of the soil, starting from easy and accessible techniques that can be executed by growers themselves. The guide is distinctively built to work with living soils: rather than overly focussing on chemical composition, the guide is geared towards observing and enhancing biological activity, the soil’s structure and its water retention capacity.
Care for damaged soils is an integral part of an agroecological urbanism. While valuable soils should first of all be protected against the pressures of urbanisation, the conversion of land that was temporarily not cultivated has an important role to play as well. The rebuilding of top soils on such damaged lands should not be an individual responsibility of growers and could be facilitated. Farmers should be given time in which they can work on these lands without economic pressure and with the secure prospect of long leases in order to encourage long term care for the soil.
‘Soil carers’ - the people who take action to care for soils - also require support to be able to undertake the work they do, particularly within urban environments. This might include affordable accommodation for growers, agricultural subsidies for agroecologically grown food, universal basic income, an expansion of ‘Healthy Start’ style voucher programmes to ensure that everyone can afford to buy local, agroecologically grown food, or increased access to land for food growing (e.g. through the expansion of allotment sites). Soil care work will need to happen at two levels - building and maintaining soils used for agroecological growing already, and remediating other damaged soils to a standard suitable for agroecological growing. The soil recovery initiatives in Rosario’s Urban Agriculture Programme mentioned above are an example of how the latter can be undertaken at a municipal scale - it would not be economically sustainable for agroecological growers to take on all the work of remediating soils whilst also needing already-healthy soils to grow food for sale in.
Soil care is a new and inspiring narrative for public policy and spatial planning.
Within climate policies and sustainable development initiatives agroecology is today promoted under the popular discourse of nature based solutions and ecosystem services. This label seems to suggest that nature can be simply taped into as a source of service delivery. Agroecology, however, is a practice of growers and carers for the soil, and it is hard work. Agroecology relies on cultural soils that exist as they are regenerated and are dependent on the care work that is extended to them. Agroecology also requires the permanent presence of people that with all their senses pay attention to the seasons, the growth and maturing of plants, the weather conditions they suffer and benefit from, the interaction with a whole web of life that contributes to the health of plants and animals.
In urbanising societies farmers are pushed out of the landscape. Farming is often looked down upon and poorly paid. Urban functions are competing over farmland. Living close to farmland is made difficult. The interests of farmers are hardly represented in urban constituencies. Caring for the soil however is not possible when there will be no soil carers left.
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As with other commons, good stewardship of soils depends upon people’s rights and responsibilities around them being collectively agreed upon - this could occur at many levels, from international to the hyper-local, and urban areas may want to consider the governance structures which should be put in place to create a ‘healthy soil-scape’. This might include community soil workshops, neighbourhood composting schemes, municipality-wide soil charters developed by citizens’ assemblies, and changes to local procurement and waste management services - and the examples above show elements of these are already in place in the case cities of London, Riga, Rosario and Brussels. The idea of ‘nutrient sovereignty’ might be a useful frame for these activities and their governance - drawing on the concept of food sovereignty, nutrient sovereignty asks what arrangements would need to be in place for people to exercise a right to recycle nutrients for purposes such as food growing. It also places the emphasis on communities having autonomy over their nutrient and soil systems, as opposed to relying on intermediaries for information or technical solutions designed in and for other contexts.
Changes to waste processing and planning legislation may be amongst those required, so that community composting, and composting at a larger scale, for the purpose of agroecological growing, are supported. Planning processes should consider the effect of soil health on proposed activities, in line with other commitments, for example around climate change mitigation, in doing so tying national policies to concrete local actions. Securing planning permission for the necessary infrastructure to develop a composting facility on the edge of London (using organic waste from the city, and supplying this product to growers on and off-site) proved very difficult for Quantum Waste. Their planning application was rejected as no evidence of agricultural activities was provided for the site, but these activities could not be initiated without the construction of infrastructure, which required planning permission. Local and national governments should take a more holistic view across departments to support the building of healthy soils, to begin to overcome issues like this.
A number of strategies could facilitate further implementation of these new realities, some of which have emerged more clearly through the COVID pandemic:
Net zero policy objectives and climate emergencies declared by organisations/cities/local authorities/countries
‘Local living’ narratives and new community solidarities (e.g. mutual aid networks) mobilised through living under lockdowns
Engaging with the fragmented regulation on soils to develop a unified framework
EU research placing soil centrally in the next EU Framework Programme cycle (post-Horizon 2020)
In the UK, soil health is included in the ‘public money for public goods’ concept guiding post-Brexit agricultural and environmental policy
Aligning soil care with other environmental priorities such as water and air quality
It is clear that the Healthy Soil Scape will require the mobilization of many different type of actors. We identify the following as the main agents to take the lead:
Communities reclaiming nutrients and soil health knowledge as the beginning of deepening their relationships with local soils
Research and training organisations developing appropriate pedagogical programmes and knowledge exchange initiatives to support re-skilling
Local authorities providing infrastructure and space for, and prioritising, community composting
Dedicated businesses/service providers adapting the needs of agroecological soil carers, for example have centrally organised and processed organic waste to make a product useful for agroecological growers, and is then distributed to them
Soils are a complex network of living and non-living beings, and deepening our understanding of and relationships with them will require dedicated and emergent thinking and action over the long term, not quick, oversimplified technical fixes. However, with a constellation of actors above and below ground working together, we can reimagine what cities and their soils can be, from the garden to the landscape scale.
Steffan, J., Brevik, E., Burgess, L. and Cerdà, A., 2017. The effect of soil on human health: an overview. European Journal of Soil Science, 69(1), pp.159-171.
Poux, X. and Aubert, P., 2018. An Agroecological Europe In 2050: Multifunctional Agriculture For Healthy Eating - Findings From The Ten Years For Agroecology (TYFA) Modelling Exercise. [online] Available at: https://www.soilassociation.org/media/18074/iddri-study-tyfa.pdf Accessed 25 June 2020.
Garden Organic. n.d. Peat. [online] Available at: https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/peat Accessed 25 June 2020.
Tornaghi, C. (2017) ‘Urban Agriculture in the Food-Disabling City: (Re)Defining Urban Food Justice, Reimagining a Politics of Empowerment: (Re)Defining Urban Food Justice’. Antipode [online] 49 (3), 781-801. available from https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12291
Graham, K., 2018. Nutrient Sovereignty In The Community Growing Spaces Of Cambridge: Investigating The Emergence Of An Urban Agroecology Through Soil And Waste. MSc. Coventry University. [online] available from 10.13140/RG.2.2.32731.92964