Urban soil ecology: Progress and future potential for science and sustainability
Soils are essential natural resources for civilization; it’s difficult to imagine a future for any society without sustainably-managed soils. Alongside their agricultural roles, soils provide foundations—literally—for urbanized ecosystems. Urbanized soils and their biodiversity provide ecosystem services including support for vegetation, water regulation, carbon sequestration, pollution remediation, and entertainment (e.g., digging for worms, making mud pies). Nonetheless, urban soils are often “out of sight, out of mind,” abused and taken for granted by many urban residents and scientists. In contrast, enormous gains have been made over three-plus decades in the still-nascent but exploding field of urban soil ecology (USE). This presentation’s objective is to review and organize the history of USE-related research in the United States (in honor of the ESA’s 100th anniversary) to provide insights into its relationships with general ecology and the sustainability of urban socioecological systems. This was accomplished with a comprehensive, qualitative, multidisciplinary literature review, yielding ~230 relevant references.
One of the first studies of USE (in a lawn) was published in Ecology in 1936. With few other exceptions, focused urban soil research did not begin in the U.S. until the 1980s (excluding that about soil pollution). Much work in the early to mid-1980s was done by soil, forestry and turfgrass scientists, who have continued to generate basic and applied USE information. In the late 1980s, ecologists established the New York City urban-rural forest gradient study, which yielded seminal 1990s papers. In the 2000s, USE articles increased five-fold as the two urban LTER sites and ecologists elsewhere established baseline USE frameworks and data about biodiversity-soil physicochemical relationships, food webs, and biogeochemical pools and fluxes, with many focused on lawns. Reflecting calls for ecologists to advance sustainability goals for society, recent USE research relates to ecosystem services, pollution remediation, ecological restoration, and designed soils. Continued growth in USE studies during the past five years has established USE as a productive aspect of ecology that contributes central understanding about human-environment relationships in the Anthropocene. Future USE challenges include synthesizing a fragmented, diverse multidisciplinary literature and developing a stronger research agenda to test and advance general ecological theories. Because they are ubiquitously under our feet, urban soils provide enormous opportunities for conducting coupled basic- applied ecology research while also playing a keystone role in environmental education, both of which are vital to ensuring a more sustainable future for all urban organisms, human, soil and otherwise.