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Understanding Soils in Urban Environments

Understanding Soils in Urban Environments

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Understanding Soils in Urban Environments

223 pagine
2 ore
Jan 14, 2011


Soil properties such as water retention, salinity and acidity are not just issues for agriculture and forestry. They are equally as significant in creating environmental and structural problems for buildings and other engineering works. As an increasing proportion of the world's population is living in cities, and building and related infrastructure development continues, these problems assume ever-greater importance. In addition, existing works contribute to urban soil erosion and pollution as well as increased levels of urban runoff.

Understanding Soils in Urban Environments explains how urban soils develop, change and erode. It describes their physical and chemical properties and focuses on specific soil problems, such as acid sulfate soils, that can cause environmental concern and also affect engineering works. It also addresses contemporary issues such as green roofs, urban green space and the man-made urban soils that plants may need to thrive in. It provides a concise introduction to all aspects of soils in urban environments and will be extremely useful to students in a wide range of disciplines, from soil science and urban forestry and horticulture, to planning, engineering, construction and land remediation, as well as to engineers, builders, landscape architects, ecologists, planners and developers.

Jan 14, 2011

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Understanding Soils in Urban Environments - Pam Hazelton



Soils have traditionally been viewed and examined from an agricultural perspective – the importance of soil functions in urban situations is often overlooked. This book introduces a better understanding of soils in an urban environment. It explains what soils are, describes their significant properties and discusses how soils can influence and be influenced by human activities. It acknowledges the link between soils and ecological sustainability in the urban environment, and discusses the effect of climate change on soils in a variety of situations.

The reference list at the end of each chapter provides a starting point from which more detailed and technical information can be found.


Soils in an urban environment


Soil is everywhere. Although generally associated with agriculture, horticulture and forestry, soil also underlies most of our cities and urban hinterlands. In the urban environment soils may vary in natural condition, be slightly disturbed or completely disturbed, as in the case of man-made landscapes. Soils have always performed a wide range of useful functions. The range of these functions and impacts on the environment has changed considerably in the urban environment as land use is converted from rural to urban. Failure of the soil to function as expected can have a significant effect on the urban environment, resulting in serious impacts including damage to buildings and roads, land slip, poor water quality, soil contamination, dryland salinity and degraded ecosystems (Scheyer and Hipple 2005; Hicks and Hird 2007).

Whether in a natural or disturbed condition, soils vary widely in their properties. Disturbed soils especially differ from soils in natural areas because their horizons have been mixed, destroyed or removed. The natural soil properties have changed. Subsoils are exposed or mixed with topsoils and compaction may have occurred. Natural soils may be buried under fill; chemical and waste materials may have been added. All these activities can result in large changes in the physical, chemical and engineering properties of the soils at a site. The natural properties of the soils, or the changes to their properties, can determine whether the soils can carry out the engineering, environmental, hydrological, physical, chemical and biological functions required for the urban environment. The importance of soil in sustaining day-to-day urban community activities is often not appreciated. Overlooking its importance can have adverse consequences.

This book is an introduction to urban soils. It describes the fundamental properties, functions and behaviour of soils in an urban environment.

Nature of soils

Soil sometimes occurs as weathered in situ material derived from bedrock. In other situations it comprises materials that have been transported to or from sites by various agents including water, wind, gravity, ice and – as frequently occurs in urban areas –human activity.

The soil and its properties result from the interaction of chemical, physical and biological activities. Soil is a unique resource and a distinctive identifiable part of the environment. The soil type is influenced by environmental factors including the parent material from which it is derived, vegetation, climate, topography and availability of water. Soil is, in effect, the ultimate interface between the geosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the biosphere (Rimmer 1998). The effects of human impact on soils are linked to the way in which the soil is used and the land managed.

Soils in the urban environment

Soil and its properties are mainly studied in relation to rural and semi-rural activities; its importance is overlooked or underestimated in an urban or city environment. Despite an apparent lack of importance in urban studies, it is an indisputable fact that soil lies beneath the feet of urban dwellers – it nourishes gardens and parklands, supports building foundations, underlies transport corridors and is often used as a sink for effluent and waste disposal (see Figure 1.1, Figure 1.2 and Table 1.1). It is the medium in which vegetation grows, often to remediate sites which have been scarred by change in the landscape (Hazelton 2006).

Figure 1.1. The distribution of activities across an urban landscape, indicating the range of soil functions in an urban environment.

Figure 1.2. The interaction of soils with other aspects of the urban environment, including the human and biophysical environments (after Bridgeman et al. 1995).

Table 1.1. Soil interactions with an urban environment

Soils are a key component of the urban ecosystem and the natural infrastructure of urban land (Scheyer and Hipple 2005; Hecht and Sanders 2007). Soils affect urban ecosystem functions by:

•  absorption of rainfall to prevent flooding and runoff – the urbanisation of rural land can significantly increase runoff because of larger paved, sealed and roofed areas;

•  absorption of effluent and pollutants – the concentration of human activity increases the local output of effluent and pollutants, which increases the potential for contamination;

•  nourishment of gardens, parklands and sporting grounds – in urban areas there is an increased need for revegetation growth for recreation and environmental rehabilitation;

•  natural habitat protection of conservation areas, especially endangered ecological communities.

The concentration of human activity also increases the use of soils as foundation materials for buildings and transport corridors.

The impact of urbanisation on the environment is so critical that the extent of impervious surfaces and urban/suburban developed land are key indicators of the health of water and terrestrial ecosystems (Hecht and Sanders 2007). Knowledge of soils management has always been considered important in rural environments. It is just as important, or even more, to understand and manage soils in an urban environment for sustainable environmental management (see Colour plate 1).

The specific formation and characteristics of urban soils are closely related to the history of a city and its hinterland. Natural, artificial, cultural and social environments determine the dominant features of soils in urban areas.

In many regions, urban areas have expanded into rural hinterland, including valuable horticultural land such as vegetable gardens and flower gardens. These once-productive areas have been transformed into residential, commercial and industrial sites. The waste from these sites has often been disposed of in the soil. Some urban soils can be highly variable, as the degree of ground disturbance varies with urban land uses. There are often man-made soils (Pouyat et al. 2007), or Anthroposols (Isbell 2002) (see Table 1.2). Therefore, features from both traditional agriculture and modern urbanisation can be observed in the soil of urban areas and cities.

Some of the specific changes to soils following urbanisation are summarised by Stroganova et al. (1997) and shown in Table 1.3.

Table 1.2. Some classifications or categories of disturbed soil materials in an urban environment

Table 1.3. Changes in environmental functions of urban soils

Source: After Stroganova et al. (1997, 1998).

Urban land use is often intense and can have a high environmental impact. This is illustrated in Figure 1.1 and in Tables 1.1 and 1.3a&b. Urbanisation alters soils in dramatic ways. Urban land uses alter plant nutrients; chemicals and heavy metals affect soil physical properties in unique ways. Restoring urban soils to their initial condition is either impossible or requires very different methods from those used in non-urban environments (Pavco-Zuckerman 2008).

Urban areas and soil properties

Soil properties such as shrink/swell, high or low permeability, low bearing strength, salinity, sodicity and acidity that have caused problems for rural land users now present planning and construction constraints for engineers, environmentalists, ecologists, planners and landscape architects also, as populations grow and land use changes.

This shift from rural to urban soil management and design includes building requirements such as pre- and post-construction sediment and erosion management, landfill design for waste management, specialist assessment for the treatment of disturbed and/or contaminated sites, and landscaping areas for the well-being of communities. In addition to changes in soils and landscapes because of agricultural practices, urban development has altered large tracts of land to varying degrees, such as cuts and fills that can be measured in metres. Soil is also used for foundations and in the construction of structures such as dams and landfills.

Another major environmental issue is the change in water quality of groundwater and local waterways because of excavation and movement of soil from construction sites alone. Water runoff, for example, is directly affected by change in the surface characteristics of the soil in an urban environment. The soil can become compacted and no longer act as a filter. Surface water runoff, as point or non-point sources, carries dust and soil material with suspended and dissolved pollutants that can directly enter waterways and affect the water quality.

Soil serves as a habitat for macro- and microbiota within and on its surface. The biota transform both living and dead organic matter

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