Let’s Dig: crowd-sourcing data on urban soil performance

A soil core of sand-based structural soil Photo credit:

A soil core of sand-based structural soil

Data, data, data.

We know that all good science is based on adequate data. And if you’re reading this page, you probably also already know there is a lack of adequate data when it comes to the real-world performance of urban tree planting soils. This post is your chance to change that and add your own information to a shared database of soil performance data.

A bit of background: In 2014 we (Eric Kramer, ASLA, and Stephanie Hsia of ReedHilderbrand; Robert Uhlig, ASLA, of Halvorson Design; Bryant Scharenbroch, PhD of University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point; and Kelby Fite, PhD of Bartlett Research Labs) undertook a micro-study of seven sites in Boston — constructed urban landscape projects anywhere from 5 to 45 years old. Each project took a pro-active approach to designed soil systems, using suspended pavements, Cornell University structural soils, or sand-based soils. We took soil cores, recorded soils horizons, took lab samples and compared findings to what we knew about what had been installed. We also assessed the performance of the trees over time.

The preliminary results of this study were presented at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver in 2014, and were recently published in Landscape Architecture Frontiers.

There is much to say about what we found in our study, but the most important thing, in the end, was that we could only make so many conclusions based on the small sample size. We needed more data, and despite the commitment of this team, we didn’t have the time or financial wherewithal to gather it ourselves. The answer, we have come to conclude, is to crowd-source it.

Whether you are a scientist, arborist, landscape architect, student, or just an interested individual, you will be able to contribute. We are in the process of developing a draft protocol for soil testing and tree health assessment that anyone can undertake with a few tools and a small budget for sending soils to a testing lab. The protocol (preliminary images of which are shown here) will enable a standardized approach to gathering data. We hope to collect data from all over the country, on sites of many different characters and uses, soil types, tree species and ages.

Once a volunteer collects the data, we will provide a site for uploading and gathering it into an open-source database. Certainly our team plans to use this larger sample to test and advance our initial findings and search for more trends that may advance the practice. But we also plan to provide the data to any other researchers who can use it. We hope it becomes a dynamic and growing resource for soil and tree research into the future. There is so much left to learn about urban soils and we hope this a small step toward increased basic scientific knowledge.

Tree assessment as described in the draft protocol Photo credit:

Tree assessment as described in the draft protocol

The protocol is still in the final stages of development, and will undergo some beta testing with a small group of users before it is released. If you are interested in finding out more, want to be a beta tester, or have information you think would be helpful, please go ahead and let us know with the form below. We hope to have the protocol ready to go by fall 2016.

Eric Kramer, ASLA, Principal, ReedHilderbrand