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Urban Soil Mapping and Inventory

The National Cooperative Soil Survey program relies on a centralized database that holds a standard set of soil properties as data elements and that accesses the soil information through queries with common formats. The National Soil Information System (NASIS) will build on an urban database and maverick tables created during recent urban surveys such as LaTourette Park on Staten Island, New York. The soil properties chosen for the urban database depend on the landuse and intensity of use planned by customers in urban areas. When soil properties are gathered that are not yet used in surveys nationwide, the tables interpreting the suitability of those soils for new uses may be called maverick tables while they are still generated manually from a database external to NASIS. The goal is to complete the initial testing of these interpretations quickly and to fully document the soil behavior under those uses so that maverick tables become interpretations generated through NASIS. It is important, though, not to stifle the thinking or to limit the initial exploration of soil behavior while waiting to become fully NASIS compatible. It is just as important to integrate urban interpretations into the mainstream of soil survey.

An example of the urban survey is the prototype for LaTourette Park on Staten Island, New York. The evaluation of heavy metals in soils appears alongside traditional interpretations for playgrounds and picnic areas. Updated graphics and the selection of manuscript text of greatest interest to a very specific non-farm customer are new to soil survey. There are a few policy documents and special studies that, though not specific to urban soils, apply to urban soils as small areas or areas of special use.

Photo of a playground in an urban area.

Updated mapping procedures for small areas are found in a USDA-NRCS Technology Policy Paper that was sent to State Conservationists on July 24, 1997. The letter provides a link between riparian areas and urban areas for soil survey methodology.

The recent publication on Cranberry Soil Maps (by Jim Turenne) is an example of landscape links to small areas of special use. The ground-penetrating radar can be used in urban areas in similar ways, and the format of the publication itself gives ideas on presentation and marketing of urban soil surveys for specific customers.

The attempt to establish a common vocabulary for unconventional soil features found in urban soil survey will benefit from a soil classification system compatible with soil taxonomy. A circular letter recently requested comments on urban taxonomy for consideration by the International Committee on Anthropogenic Soils (ICOMANTH). The notice dated August of 1997 mentioned over 11 categories of changes in soils due to human activities, including many found in urban areas or done for urban purposes:

  • dredge materials
  • accelerated erosion
  • land filling
  • land leveling
  • surface removal
  • contamination
  • sedimentation
  • windblown deep plowing/logging
  • severe compaction by machinery
  • artificial saturation

The urban soils community can and should contribute to the work of ICOMANTH because urban soils are found worldwide and are an area of great concern for world food supply and sustainable drinking water supply, as well as aesthetics and recreation.