Working dirt: Community based research on lead, gardens, and place

The Issue

The transition to sustainable cities often places emphasis on the importance of green infrastructure, including gardens. Urban gardens provide a local source of nutritious food and can help to strengthen community ties. However, there are tradeoffs to gardening in the city, including potential exposure to soil pollutants, such as lead from legacy sources such as paint, gas, and industry. Lead in soil is a lesser known source of human lead exposure but it can adversely affect humans, especially children, if it is accidentally inhaled or ingested. Older neighborhoods, often occupied by low-income communities and communities of color, are burdened with the highest soil lead levels. These are often the same neighborhoods with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Despite being located in one of the most productive agricultural regions of the world, some neighborhoods in Sacramento are considered food deserts. How can residents manage for multiple ecosystem services by safely growing food in their yards and minimizing their potential exposure to soil lead? Studying the connection between urban landscapes and soil lead can identify areas of concern and help mitigate potential risk.

What Has ANR Done?

ANR funded a collaborative transdisciplinary research program that includes ecologists and social scientists at UC Davis who work in partnership with local non-profit organizations in Sacramento, CA. These organizations support healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities and they encourage gardening to improve access to local foods and build community cohesion and empowerment. The ecologists tested soil lead in 124 yards in underserved neighborhoods in north and south Sacramento. Data are shared with residents in the form of easily accessible maps that indicate where the many samples were taken and the corresponding lead concentrations. The social scientists conducted resident surveys and interviews; facilitated activities that allow residents to tell their stories of place, contamination, and gardening; and interviewed residents, social justice activists, and policy actors on the issues of food access and agriculture in Sacramento. Collaboratively we are evaluating the tradeoff among the ecosystem services of food provisioning and soil lead exposure.

The Payoff

Comprehensive soil lead testing informs safe gardening practices

More than 100 gardens were built in low-income neighborhoods of South Sacramento and Del Paso Heights. Residents were provided information and resources to grow vegetables and minimize exposure to soil lead, and community leaders increased their awareness of the potential tradeoff with exposure to soil lead. UC Davis researchers gained a greater understanding of how to communicate potential lead risk to residents. Crucially, community-based research on lead, gardens, and place has strengthened relationships between UC Davis researchers, local non-profits, and community gardeners and identified ecosystem services that the community values and would like to manage for - advancing the ultimate goal of healthy urban gardening. This project has forged strong community-university partnerships that we are working to sustain and has enhanced the visibility of the UC in the community.


Mary L. Cadenasso, UC Davis,
Jonathon K. London, UC Davis,
Bethany B. Cutts, University of Illinois; Kirsten Schwarz, Northern Kentucky University