We walk on it, build on it, pave over it and throw our rubbish in it. But soil is worth so much more. Not only is soil integral to life on earth; it can also help to save our planet.

Inspired by our recent U+I Think Event from visionary landscape architect Jo Gibbons, available to watch here, this newsletter digs deep into the value of soil and our responsibility as developers to make better use of it.

Soils are sensual. They have texture, scent, colour. They are the living skin of the planet, with more microbes in a handful than there are people on Earth. Grab some, lift it to your nose. With your eyes closed, detect its health and read a living dynamic – physically, chemically and biologically complex – that is the foundation of all life. Observe how the material rolls between your fingers. Register the moisture and granularity. Look for white, stringy signs of fungal hyphae and earthworm activity. 

Every excavation illuminates a profile of great substance: humus, topsoil, subsoil and even parent material that reveal the characteristics of the resource, alive with a below-ground narrative of physical and human geography. Soil is critical infrastructure on which our very existence relies. The geological layer cake beneath our feet encapsulates our fundamental identity in an illustration of deep time, natural process and human endeavour.

On the one hand there seems to be a fundamental disconnect with soil, such that its significance as a climate solution seems to be a well-kept secret. On the other hand, any gardener will say that having hands in the soil makes you happy. The microbes in healthy soil act as a natural anti-depressant - the distinctive feel-good factor of composting, the miracle transformation of food waste to ‘black gold’. 

Neglected and misunderstood

In fact, soil is the second-largest natural carbon sink after the oceans - surpassing forests and other vegetation. Right in front of our nose, softly beneath our feet, soils quietly perform multiple ecosystem services, as life-giving super sponges, absorbing and attenuating rainwater, while also supporting and sustaining the foundation for all life. And when it rains, the chemical geosmine connects us to the earth with an ancestral sensory power:  humanity can detect it at an extraordinary level of 5 parts per trillion!

It is therefore hard to understand why there is no statutory protection for soil, especially in the context of progressive large-scale soil degradation and the role of soil carbon sequestration in achieving Net Zero. When the National Planning Policy Framework refers to ’Nature Recovery Networks’, practical implementation of soil strategies for climate change adaptation lags behind afforestation. More than that, effective and urgent soil restoration to prevent flooding and mitigate the effects of climate change can only be achieved with an eco-centric rather than an ego-centric approach. This means individual and collective responsibility for caretaking with the right skills, whether the front garden, the village green or a strategic development plan.

The soil-carbon marketplace is in operation. An agricultural revolution is upon us, incentivising land stewardship that sequesters carbon into the soil, and regional eco-system markets are already operating for carbon off-setting. 

Eco-centric, not ego-centric

However, with good soil resource management for enhancement or restoration, AT SOURCE, on site, I believe we can do better than that, whether in an urban or agricultural context. It’s quite simple to do and not so simple to measure. But, while the metrics are being worked out, there is no time to lose Soil carbon represents 25% of the potential of natural climate solutions in preventing carbon emissions and removing atmospheric carbon. In the words of Partha Dasgupta, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Cambridge, we must ‘tap into the naturalist that lies deep within us all’ and realise the fundamental reconstruction of asset management – linking biodiversity and economics – that is required.

What can be done? Soils can have an impact in three key ways. First, they allow plants to grow, which in turn remove carbon from the atmosphere. Second, when soils are healthy, they keep carbon below ground. And third, they protect or enhance natural / semi-natural areas that act as a powerful defence against a changing climate. To capitalise on all these benefits, developers can call upon the skills of landscape architects, ecologists and soil scientists, specialists who can identify soil climate strategies that, in the words of Nature magazine, ‘lag behind potential, partly because we lack clarity around the magnitude of opportunity and how to capitalise on it.’

Waiting for the rules to be made to implement best practice will take too long. Initiatives need to be taken now to address, for instance, the call from the London Plan for a step change in accelerating urban greening and reversing biodiversity loss. Nature is the blind spot in economics, and soil is not on the radar. As Dasgupta says, truly sustainable growth and development means recognising that ‘our long-term prosperity relies on replacing our demands on nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them’. Soil conservation is a key facet.

Some steps are relatively easy. Why not de-pave your scheme by replacing paving with soil, turning impermeable surfaces permeable? Instigate a soil survey and soil resource management plan to guide development. Aim for a far higher Biodiversity Net Gain than the required 10% without compromise to the mitigation hierarchy. Hold open existing soils and plant trees and grassland and arrest incremental habitat loss. Protect soils and root zones from compaction and instigate robust monitoring as research. And invigorate local skills and community cohesion through a network of community compost hubs on every site that can network globally and act locally as a catalyst for social, cultural, environmental rejuvenation.

Transformative action is significantly less costly than delay to ‘bend the curve’ of biodiversity loss. Reverse the sense of detachment. Bring the art and science of soils into focus. Put your hands in the soil, play in the dirt, embrace the new idea of planetary health and the collective capacity of humanity, and act on it.

Johanna Gibbons is a Landscape Architect and Fellow of the Landscape Institute. Jo was named a Royal Designer for Industry for her ‘pioneering and influential work combining design with activism, education and professional practice’. She is founding Partner of J & L Gibbons and founding Director of social enterprise Landscape Learn. Jo is a research partner of Urban Mind, panel advisor to Historic England and the Forestry Commission and a Trustee of Open City. She publishes and lectures widely.

Ellen Fay is the Founder and Executive Director of the Sustainable Soils Alliance. In conversation with Jo Gibbons, she explains the progress made in recent years and the urgent work that still needs to be done around soil.


Jo: When you step out what is the first thing you see?

Ellen: I don’t step outside enough nowadays. Ironically, and maybe like many others over the past 18 months, I spend infinitely more time in front of a computer than I do looking at soil. It has been a very intense time steering a small organisation through the pandemic precisely as the need for – and demands upon – an organisation focused solely on soil health have never been greater. However, much of the first lockdown was spent on a farm in Devon, where I was able to witness, through my children’s’ eyes, soils go from bare, to feathered with new shoots, to invisible under their lush green crops. They became fascinated with identifying at a distance whether soils were healthy or damaged, spotting bald patches in the middle of fields and calling out cows churning up the soil at the edge of streams. It was interesting how clear the connections were to them between what people do and how nature responds.


Jo: What makes your heart sing?

Ellen: We are a fairly dry policy and systems change-focused organisation. When we first started up in 2017, the government announced a goal for all soils in England to be sustainably managed by 2030. This goal had actually been launched a number of years earlier but it had sat on a shelf somewhere in Defra. There was no thinking behind a trajectory to achieve it, no milestones, no benchmarks. In fact, soil has been in a policy vacuum arguably for a generation, with an equivalent lack of investment at government level. So it gives me much hope, four years later, that the basis for a soil policy framework seems finally to be emerging. To build and maintain momentum, we need to keep focusing efforts to ensure that as a country we effectively legislate against soil degradation, incentivise long-term improvements to soil, foster practical and academic learning about soil and its importance, and galvanise all those whose livelihoods depend upon soil in a national effort to reverse degradation and invest in improving it. And we need government to commit to monitoring and reporting on the results of this work on the health of our soils.


Jo: Greenfield, brownfield – aren’t all soils today affected by human activity and does it matter?

Ellen: About 95% of our food comes from the soil: as a species and as societies, we have evolved to depend on it. Yet intensive agriculture is not what soil evolved to do. So, it is vital that our dependence upon soil takes into account its natural state and, as we use soils, we also manage them so that they can continue to carry out natural functions, such as carbon and water storage and providing a home for below-ground biodiversity, as well as being where we grow our food and build our houses.


Jo: It sounds as if you are talking about regenerative practice. What does that mean in practical terms?

Ellen: There is no official definition of ‘regenerative’ agriculture. And no one practice that will guarantee soil regeneration. As I point out above, soil did not evolve to be ‘worked’, so the regeneration of soils needs to take into consideration a complex suite of factors, some inherent to a given soil in a given place (not all soils are the same!) and others inherent to what is demanded of that soil by the people who work it. Many soil-focused regenerative practices for example are dependent on herbicides. So, we need to be clear what we are regenerating and what the trade-offs are. Some regenerative practices on specific soil types in specific agricultural systems will reap huge benefits in terms of biodiversity and carbon storage. But the same practices in other parts of the country might lead to soil compaction or runoff, causing ecological damage to water courses and adding to flooding problems. With soil, there is no one-size-fits-all. Where standardisation is possible is in the measurement of metrics and results and there is a great need for this so we can more fully understand what works where.


Jo: What needs to be done to get soil as a climate change solution higher up the agenda?

Ellen: The recent Environment Bill debates in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords saw ministers and MPs stating that we cannot achieve any of our urgent environmental commitments and ambitions, including Net Zero, without healthy soils. In fact, soil health will determine the outcomes of many government and industry objectives around the globe, including climate mitigation, flood-risk minimisation, water-quality measures, biodiversity and future food production – and recognition of this is finally seeing soils enjoy significant, even unprecedented attention.

In the UK alone, an estimated 9.8 billion tonnes of carbon are stored in soils, and whilst soil carbon sequestration can increase this amount, poorly managed soil can be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. As I indicated earlier, despite widespread evidence that UK soils are degraded, soil has been neglected as a policy priority for decades and the historical lack of a nationwide soil target has meant no imperative to report on its changing health, and thus no investment in its long-term monitoring or management. Such monitoring and management are critical to help ensure soils play their full role as a key part of the solution to the enormous environmental challenges we face today.

Ellen Fay is the Founder and co-Executive Director of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA). Previously founder/director of a ground-breaking international conference series centred around trees, soil, ecosystems and conservation, Ellen identified the need for a dedicated soil-health partnership. Her focus is on vision-building and creating a shared space where diverse organisations can come together with common purpose. 

You dirt cheap, common as muck, old stick-in-the-mud. With dirty, soiled hands, you treat me like dirt. Well, eat my dust, bite the dust, I'll drag your name through the mud, you piece of shit.

When humanity wants to treat something or someone badly, we use language to discredit and disempower them. Back in the 16th century, Francis Bacon recast mother nature as a “common harlot” as part of his campaign for man to dominate over nature (thanks very much to this so-called father of modern science for culturally ingraining the exploitation of nature). In the 18th century, race was invented as a categorising term to justify slavery. And today, a slew of derogatory terms are in circulation for neurodiverse people. Down the centuries, then, we have used bad language to (try to) justify bad behaviour. 

This is what we do to soil. We take everything we can from it and only care about the damage we’ve done because it’s so depleted and exhausted we can’t exploit it any further. Soil is so deeply underappreciated. Despite it being central to life itself, we treat it like dirt. But imagine if that meant the opposite. Imagine if we said: 'All that glistens is not clay:' ‘Not for love nor muddy,’ or 'You're worth your weight in soil.'

Maybe that would make us care much more about soil, as we should. Maybe those of us working in the built environment (which would be renamed ‘the environment’) would put soil restoration and holistic ecosystem health centre stage in the course of creating human habitats. What would that look like?

Doing the groundwork

Maybe our site analyses would start from the ground up. We’d consider the soil on site; its role in the water, carbon, and nutrient cycles; the habitats it provides; the life it supports. We’d design our developments with high regard for these essential processes and work to restore degraded soil by implementing custodianship programmes that would maintain soil health over the long term. And we wouldn’t only think about the soil within the red line, but all the soil the project impacts. We wouldn’t degrade landscapes elsewhere by importing tonnes of peat and topsoil to earn points in one place while causing untold harm out of sight. We would consider the impacts of our material choices on soil health, through specifying sustainably managed bio-based materials, and we would avoid damaging extraction and manufacturing by maximising the use of reclaimed and recovered materials. 

This would bring huge benefits to the whole ecosystem, which would become more resilient to a changing climate and better able to flourish as a life-giving system that enables everything from food security to happiness. 

Genuine sustainability (not ticking boxes to justify sustaining harmful behaviours, but real long-term fair and sustainable life on earth) is not about minimising humanity’s impact on nature. It’s about humanity engaging in a positive reciprocal relationship with the rest of nature. Soil can teach us this and if we listened, 'eat dirt' would mean I wish you the sweetest dreams and the very best of luck in all your endeavours.

Director of Sustainability and Physics at Buro Happold, Maria Smith is a multi-award-winning architect, engineer, writer and curator working across disciplines on the transition to a fair and sustainable built environment. They are a nationally elected member of the council of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), a trustee of the Architecture Foundation, on the steering committee of Built Environment Declares, and a Mayor of London Design Advocate.

Soils are composed of minerals, decomposing animals, microbes and plants, fungi, bacteria and insects, water and air. Approximately 50% of this recipe is from weathered rock eroded, gouged and scraped from the earth’s surface. 

The geological ‘parent’ materials range from sediments to igneous rocks. In the British Isles and Ireland, the range of these geological typologies is a marvel: a tableau of the history of Planet Earth writ large in our landscape.

The underlying geology provides fundamental clues to the character of a place, not just the suitability of the ground to support a structure, but a sense of the genius loci. We believe it is critical to analyse places in space and time: to understand their origins in Deep Time, the time scale of geological events, alongside the physical processes that shaped the land.

Time is a critical component in the generation of soil and in the context of our islands, time is deep. We have the privilege of being able to see and touch 3.5 billion years of the earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. There are geological features shaped during a time when Scotland was attached to what was to become North America and Greenland and England and Wales were actually near the South Pole.

Look back and learn

We need look no further than London to see the itinerant geological eras found in the built environment. As the poet Alyson Hallett explains in The Stone Library, Park Lane incorporates material dating back more than 440 million years; the Palace of Westminster includes limestone that is at least 250 million years old and 145-million-year-old Kentish ragstone can be found in the Tower of London.

This list represents a rich variety of materials, partly informed by fashion and status and partly created out of necessity, as the immediate surroundings of London have no suitable indigenous building stones. 

More recently, materials were chosen to fit their desired form and purpose, and now material specification is fundamental to the charge of ethical and sustainable accountability.

The concept of Deep Time can be difficult to comprehend. The timescales are so immense that it is almost impossible to contextualise evolutionary periods alongside our current experiences, trends for the immediate and the obsession with the ‘here and now’. At the heart of this issue is a question of scale and our ability to seamlessly shift our thinking from the micro to macro, acknowledging that processes we see today also happened in the past, and can be a benchmark for future thinking.

Making it right

In his book Basin and Range, John McPhee suggests the following metaphor to help us locate ourselves in the Deep Timeline: “Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.” 

Despite our short existence on the planet, our impact has been seismic. The geological period that is termed the Anthropocene is defined by the twin climate and biodiversity emergencies, caused by humanity, with an impact of geological scale. By digging deep and readjusting our time zone, we can appreciate how our impact today will change the future. As creators, custodians and inhabitants of the built environment, the challenge is to look collectively beyond what is the cheapest or quickest fix, to what is the right thing to do: to conserve, reuse and and manage resources, including soil, for every project. Resources are finite; our imaginations are not.

Neil Davidson is a Landscape Architect and Partner of J & L Gibbons, Director of Landscape Learn and a Research Partner of Urban Mind. He has worked and lectured in Europe and the United States and currently chairs the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve Trust home to Phytology.


J & L Gibbons are working with Feilden Fowles to reimagine the grounds of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and create new immersive outdoor exhibits as part of the Urban Nature Project. The Gardens will tell the story of life on Earth, taking visitors on a journey into Deep Time. Walking in the footsteps of evolving life on Earth, they will become immersed in a landscape that gradually fills with plants, trees, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including humans. By understanding changes that have occurred on our planet in the Deep Past and how life responded, visitors will be better able to think about the Deep Future and how to make it viable.

Global urbanisation, the industrialisation of our food systems and outmoded land ownership structures are all contributing to an intergenerational loss of connection between people and soil, affecting us on multiple levels. On a local scale, it affects our confidence in shaping streets and neighbourhoods in a way that reflects community values and needs, so engendering disempowerment and apathy. On a global scale, this disconnect means we feel less equipped to face the enormity of the climate crisis, a unifying challenge for the world’s population, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomics.

The soil beneath our feet is a fundamental part of the solution to address these interconnected challenges. If we had greater opportunities to care for and work with the soil in our immediate surroundings, participating in all aspects of land stewardship – ecological, economic, social and cultural – this could promote a radical shift with far-reaching consequences on a global scale. It would enable greater understanding of seasonal and climatic shifts and deeper appreciation of the active role that we all have to play in safeguarding our neighbourhoods as part of a global ecosystem.

Taking Up Space

In fact, this radical shift is already happening. Take Ron Finley, the so-called ‘gangsta gardener’ who lives and works in South Central Los Angeles. Finley has transformed street side verges into fruit and vegetable corridors, in a bid to address food poverty and empower his neighbourhood to regenerate their public land into creative and abundant spaces.

Closer to home, the Community Apothecary in Walthamstow, London, has built a network of herb-growing spaces that specifically address local health needs, led by medical herbalist Rasheeqa Ahmad and a growing network of local residents. A mosaic of spaces that include the back yard of a local pensioner, an abandoned allotment and raised planters located on the high street. 

Land In Our Names (LION) is a Black-led collective committed to reparations in Britain by connecting land with climate and racial justice. LION provides critical resources and support to mobilise a network of BPOC l(Black Person of Colour) and stewards, striving for access to land and affirming the right to grow and live in safe, sustainable communities.

And in Glasgow, Baltic Street Adventure Playground was established on an abandoned piece of land, repurposed into a community food pantry and child-designed play space. Here, local kids can take the lead in transforming the play area, claiming their right to play freely, build construction skills and social confidence.

Local planning 

Babba Diaum, a Senegalese forestry engineer wrote: ‘In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.’

The learning being generated by this global movement creates an unmissable opportunity for local authorities, developers and urban planners to take up the mantle, encourage, support and prioritise open areas of land for neighbourhood-led initiatives to take root. In practice, this means creating automatous areas of land within neighbourhood and development plans that actively encourage and provide the resources for sustainable, independent, grassroots experimentation and knowledge-sharing. By reframing such spaces as critical infrastructure, vital reservoirs of soil can be held open, encouraging stewardship strategies for the land which truly reflect local priorities. 

In rebuilding a proactive connection to the natural world, these projects not only address societal and ecological issues such as loneliness, food poverty and habitat loss; they also have great relevance and deep implications for wider global challenges, such as climate change, resource distribution and social justice. 

Michael Smythe is an artist, urban farmer and creative director of Nomad Projects, an independent arts foundation that critically engages with issues surrounding environmental and social equality within the urban landscape. Current projects includes Phytology, an urban physic garden and research institute in East London and Mobile Apothecary, a herbal medicine dispensary for individuals and communities with limited access to accommodation and quality health care.

As a child I loved the outdoors, playing in the dirt. With hindsight, I realise that I grew up as part of a generation that did not link this feeling to the way that nature affects us. Back then, we simply did not understand why putting your hands the soil, a substance so full of life, would give you incredible joy and nourishment … manna itself. 

I enjoyed the dirt so much that I would spend hours and hours digging dirt jumps and trails to ride my bicycle. Those hours in the woods with friends, the grin on my face as I cleared a double or swept down a trail, can be traced directly back to the soil. Despite a lack of formal education on the holistic generosity of soil, we understood what a good soil meant. On a mountain bike, blasting down a loamy descent or smearing a clay soil on to the surface of a jump to set solid and fast, it was important to understand what the soil and its various physical characteristics could do for you.

In recent years, I began to learn about soil in the formal sense, as I made a career change from cycling and leading cyclists on experiences through incredible landscapes, to horticulture and being occupied with the landscape itself. This transition was driven by the desire to grow. Not only to grow vegetables, but to grow mentally and be able to pass on this knowledge to my young family from the very beginning. 

I began my horticultural career at Hatfield House and in a turn of events, was recently appointed Head Gardener at Birch Community, a hotel in 55 acres just north of London, where we are not just dabbling in sustainability, we are fully committed to improving the status quo – reducing our impact, while making an impact. For us, that means ultra-local production of food, educating our guests and members and encouraging staff to make positive changes in their day to day lives.

Stop digging

 I follow ‘no dig’ principles to grow vegetables both at home and at work, leaving the soil undisturbed so its organisms can work and multiply. I am beginning to understand this process and the incredible results it can yield. Nurturing soil structure allows for better drainage, yet holds more moisture. It is firm enough to stand on, yet easy enough to harvest vegetables without disturbance, allowing a continual cycle of vegetables laced with umami, the essence of deliciousness. I have found it takes passion, courage and some belligerence to hold strong and steadfast to these principles and bring together a community of like-minded people. But inspiring a few can change the masses. 

I am constantly researching various soil conservation techniques and methods, selecting aspects which best suit the environment I am entrusted with. So I’m not a permaculture gardener. I’m not a biodynamic gardener. And I’m not a Korean Natural Farmer. I am pieces of all the above, undeterred by the complexities, but relishing an understanding of them all. Soil is a resource and should be treated as such. For too long, this life-giver has been overlooked and under-respected. Work with the soil and it can work for you; it is part of your team – something I understood innately, all those years ago, digging trails for my bike. Overlook the soil and you end up in the mud.

Soil has woven a dirt track through my life and now, more than ever before, it is time to give back to the soil – to feed it, care for it, celebrate it – and continue to ride a bike on it.

Anton Blackie is a husband, father and cyclist who began his horticultural career at home and on the allotment while working for cycling specialist, Rapha. A full-time gardeners' role at Hatfield House followed and he is now Head Gardener at Birch Community & Hotel.

Urban soils have become an increasing focus of interest after many years of comparative neglect. In Johanna Gibbons’ essay, she begins by highlighting the tactile and affective properties of soil before moving on to stress the potential role of urban soils in the mitigation of climate change through carbon capture, flood protection, and other pivotal elements in the provision of “ecosystem services”. Her call to take soils more seriously involves an implicit reconceptualisation of urban ecology towards the largely unseen dimensions of the urban environment. A small handful of urban soil contains millions of microorganisms, such as bacteria that in total numbers and diversity dwarf all other global life forms. These vast assemblages of non-human life present an invisible counterpart to the more familiar realm of plants and animals within urban ecology.

A focus on urban soil unsettles a simplistic distinction between urban and “non-urban” ecosystems, and in particular, the assumption that urban space harbours lower levels of biodiversity than other kinds of habitats. A recent analysis of urban soil in New York City, for example, found that levels of biodiversity are closer to that of a tropical rainforest than might be expected.1

The study of urban soil holds traces of ecological memory and human history. The Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves, for instance, has carried out studies of urban soil exposed through construction work to show how these hidden layers of the city serve as seedbanks containing the potential for new life to flourish. Indeed, some seeds can remain dormant for decades or more, just waiting for a moment of disturbance and the possibility for new urban ecosystems to emerge.  Furthermore, Alves has explored how urban soils and other substrates contain traces of human history including trade routes associated with colonial expansion of European influence.2

Soils form part of the ecological memory of the city containing living traces to the past.

The potential role of urban soil in achieving more effective pathways to carbon neutrality rests on their capacity to act as a carbon sink. This focus on the direct contribution of soil towards carbon capture appears much more appealing than a tortuous neo-liberal emphasis on carbon trading regimes. Indeed, scholars such as Andreas Malm argue that the entire fossil fuel industry should simply be compelled to only capture carbon rather than be allowed to engage in further energy generation.3

There is a simplicity to the call for protection of urban soils that is immensely appealing, not least through wider benefits for the maintenance of biodiversity and the possibility to challenge the trend towards hard surfacing of urban space as a cheap form of landscape design or as a means to provide additional parking space. In London, for example, significant amounts of green space, including front gardens, have been lost in recent years. These trends in turn have contributed to the greater vulnerability of cities to surface water flooding, as London experienced in the summer of 2021.         

Urban soils undoubtedly have a key role to play in any radical plan for transitioning towards a zero-carbon future. Yet a reliance on various forms of ecologically inspired architecture or landscape design will not achieve this goal. The political dynamics for achieving carbon neutrality will be played out within human societies involving fundamental questions about the role of government and the necessary legal and regulatory instruments required to protect the biosphere. Urban ecological insights can illuminate the pivotal contribution of urban soils to the protection of the biosphere but they cannot provide any meaningful blueprint for the organization of human societies or the achievement of “just sustainabilities”.4

The policy implications of any emphasis on urban soil will be played out within the realm of political contestation at multiple scales from the local to the global. It is worth recalling that irreversible damage to soils was one of the inspirations for Karl Marx’s original critique of what he termed “metabolic rift” driven by the rapacious impact of a capitalist agriculture in which traditional modes of protecting soil fertility such as placing fields under fallow had been extensively abandoned in favour of an emphasis on short-term profit maximization.

How might urban soil play a more significant role in achieving better urban environmental policies? Gibbons suggests that we need to build on existing skills derived from the interface between the fields of landscape architecture, ecology, and soil science. I would argue that an even wider set of skills will be needed for a new emphasis on urban soils, such as legal expertise to unravel the complexities of urban land ownership and enable the alignment of urban environments with an environmentally framed definition of the public interest. Furthermore, a reorientation of urban environmental discourse offers the possibility to connect cities with what I have termed the “ecological pluriverse,” building on the insights of the anthropologist Pablo Escobar, derived from new ways of conceptualizing our relations with non-human inhabitants of urban space, even if the vast majority of these organisms remain unseen. 

Matthew Gandy is Professor of Geography at the University of Cambridge and was founder and director of the UCL Urban Laboratory from 2006 to 2011.His recent books include The fabric of space: water, modernity, and the urban imagination (MIT Press, 2012), Moth (Reaktion, 2016), and Natura urbana: ecological constellations in urban space (MIT Press, 2022).



1. Kelly S. Ramirez, Jonathan W. Leff, Albert Barberán, Scott Thomas Bates, Jason Betley, Thomas W. Crowther, Eugene F. Kelly, et al., “Biogeographic patterns in below-ground diversity in New York City’s Central Park are similar to those observed globally,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281 (1795) (2014): 20141988

2. See Maria Thereza Alves, The long road to Xico. El largo camino a Xico, 1991–2015 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017).

3. See Andreas Malm, Corona, climate, chronic emergency: War communism in the twenty-first century. Verso, 2020.

4. Julian Agyeman, RobertBullard, and Bob Evans (eds.) Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world (Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2003).