A recent gathering of scientists on the upper west side of Manhattan enthused about a crucial element in the formation of the surrounding city. The substance talked about in revered tones? Soil.
In a fairer world, soil would be receiving reverence from people well beyond the fourth annual NYC Urban Soils Symposium, given that the slender outer layer of the planet supports the life that treads, grows and flies above it. As it is, though, it is up to soil aficionados to extol the urban importance of this crumbly manna.
“Soil is a neglected resource; it can solve a lot of the environmental problems we have,” says Richard Shaw, a US Department of Agriculture soil scientist who grew up in urban New Jersey but was drawn to the outdoors and found himself fascinated by soils.
For the past decade Shaw has been involved in the New York soil survey, plodding around the city’s parks and community gardens taking soil samples. This has usually involved digging a 4ft-deep pit, a process that has attracted police attention. “They’d ask what we are doing and then they’d spend half a day talking to us once we told them,” he says. “Others will say ‘sorry to hear that’, like it’s the worst job in the world.”