The Healing City Soils Project

With growing concerns over food security and food access, many people are turning to their own backyards and boulevards to grow food for their families and to establish a thriving and productive urban food garden, there is a need to ‘grow your soil’ before you ‘grow your food.’

The Healing City Soils Project was developed as a partnership between the Victoria Compost Education Centre and Royal Roads University’s BSc in Environmental Science program to address soil health concerns in urban areas.

The project offers free soil testing for heavy metals and follow up gardening best practices workshops for participants. In 2016, soil tests for heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium were completed at garden sites across the communities of Victoria and Esquimalt to support people already growing, or interested in growing food in their backyards, front yards, boulevards and community gardens. Soil test results are uploaded onto the Victoria Soil Quality interactive online map, hosted on the Victoria Compost Education Centre’s website. This open-access map provides community members with a picture of soil health throughout the city. While no sites in the study last year were found to contain levels of heavy metals that would indicate any significant health risks for residents, it is important to assess your soil before creating an edible garden in the city. Food can still be grown safely at sites containing heavy metals by following best practices for creating healthy gardens.

In 2016, the project uncovered some fascinating information about historical land use in Greater Victoria leading to some interesting results. Participating residents raised a number of possible concerns including a history of backyard garbage burning, historic use of lead paint on house exteriors, and small businesses of appliance repair, sign painting, and automotive repair.Though largely residential now, Victoria archives showed that a number of breweries existed in the late 19th century and early 20th century in historic Fernwood including the Lion/Empire Brewery in Spring Ridge that burned down in 1887. Other industries on more specific locations included a metal-works near Gladstone Street and a lumber-works near Vining Street.
Building on the success of the first year of the project, student teams at Royal Roads are busy completing soil tests this spring at residential gardens and boulevards in the municipalities of Saanich and Oak Bay to expand the data on the Soil Quality map, with a goal to eventually map the entire Capital Regional District (CRD) and highlighting areas where heavy metals may need to be addressed before growing food. This map is paired with factsheets and workshops to empower people with the knowledge and skills to grow food safely or to heal the soil with compost, plants and mushrooms.

Connecting urban agriculture, composting, food literacy, ecological restoration and bioremediation, this project brings together local government and post-secondary institutions, food security organizations and people who are interested in growing food and conserving the soil beneath their feet. For more information and to view the interactive soil quality map and fact sheets, visit https://www.compost.bc.ca/healing-city- soils/