The goal of the New York City SWCD project was to create a cadre of urban farmers knowledgeable in working with urban soils for growing food in low-income communities of color in New York City. The project consisted of four components: 1) outreach, 2) workshops, 3) technical and educational resources and 4) field visits.
The Project Team consisted of NYC Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), NYC Urban Soils Institute (USI), The Horticultural Society of NY (the Hort), GrowNYC and Greenthumb. The team developed the outreach and workshop series on urban soils and growing food in the city. GrowNYC and Greenthumb led the outreach efforts because of their existing relationships with gardeners in low income communities of color; targeted email and website were the main means of outreach. The Hort and the USI developed the content for workshops.
The first workshop was an all-day event on Soil Health Basics and Soil Interpretation in McCarren Park, Brooklyn. The workshop covered fundamentals of soil fertility, pH, macro- and micronutrients, soil organisms, organic amendments, soil texture and structure, soil fertility testing, characteristics and functions of urban soils, sources and risks of contamination, screening for contaminants, interpretation of test results, remediation strategies and suggestions for mitigation of exposure and contamination.
The Hort then hosted a half-day workshop focused on Growing Food in the City. This workshop covered crop selection, crop rotation, increasing production, harvesting and preserving. Participants also took home seasonal veggie starters. Each participant was able to perform tests on their soil samples for macronutrients (NPK), pH and texture as part of the workshop. They were extremely enthusiastic and participated eagerly with more questions and discussions generated than there was time to answer.
Workshops were free to attend. Those 10 gardeners from Brooklyn and the Bronx who came to both workshops were eligible for free on-site garden assistance and soil testing.
On-site technical assistance took place in August and September. Four gardens in Brooklyn and the Bronx received one-on-one assistance with soil testing, interpreting soil tests, deciding on and applying best management practices and soil health building techniques, and assistance on selecting and growing edibles as well as harvesting. The garden plots were screened by the XRF analyzer for heavy metals.
The USI together with the Hort created Soil FAQs on various topics (sustainability and food security, pollution and contamination, physical properties: formation and processes, health and fertility, best management practices, organic amendments, compost and fertilizers, gardening: problems and best practices) and a forum, a platform for anyone and everyone interested in soil, urban agriculture and urban ecology, available through the USI website.
Another outcome of the project is the development of a soil health assessment kit that gardeners can use to learn about and test their soils. A few videos were created to demonstrate how to perform certain tests to accompany the kit.
The work was highlighted in social media, conferences and presentations. The project was presented as a model for supporting urban agriculture at Soil Science Society of America, at the Greenpoint Lead in Garden Soil Outreach Project workshops, MegaCities 2050, and the Annual Just Food conference. USI staff also participated in events with partners such as GrowNYC, the Hort, GreenThumb, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, City Growers, and NYC Compost Project. Through students at Brooklyn College, New York Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Botanic Garden have become familiar with the project as well. The USI Symposium held in November 2017 provided an opportunity not only to share the work but also to recruit more participants.
USI website includes links to technical services, research and direct communication with soil scientists. Online services also include a Soils FAQ and Forum in which soil scientists and practitioners can exchange ideas, information and answer questions. Because of the extensive network of urban gardeners cultivated by the USI, the online forum is a cost-effective way for the existing knowledge to be shared.
Field visits are by far the most powerful tool for connecting with communities and individuals on a one to one basis. They are also the most labor intensive. The district is cultivating interns from Brooklyn College for assistance with field visits. USI staff will train interns, who will gain valuable knowledge from the field visits. Interns will also be tasked with outreach via social media, websites and other digital means.