Ground zero: student project partnership tests city soils

Jean Macgregor

What lurks inside city soils?

A group of Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science students is digging into backyard gardens to find out as part of the Healing City Soils project.

A partnership between Royal Roads University, the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre and DIY Fungi with funding from the City of Victoria and the Victoria Foundation, the project aims to create a virtual soil map of Victoria and to raise awareness about potential soil contamination in order to grow food safely.

An offer of free soil sampling to homeowners in Victoria and Esquimalt yielded a flood of responses, and students Shawna Cheyne, James Heron and Michael Rae will sample and test soil from 100 sites, including backyard, boulevard and community gardens by mid-May.

Under the direction of School of Environment and Sustainability Prof. Matt Dodd, the students will sample and test for contaminants such as lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium.

Soil testing is more important than ever, with the increased interest in food security on the island, the students say.

“Right now, a lot of people are starting to grow vegetables in their own backyards, and because of the history of industry in different places around Victoria, there can be concerns with the soil in some areas,” says Heron.

The response from homeowners has been overwhelmingly positive, says Cheyne. “It’s a big project and it’s great that everyone’s excited to see what there is in the soil. All of the homeowners are very interested in what we are going to find.”

Those results will be presented at the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science major project presentation on Aug. 26. The results will also be included in the Healing City Soils virtual soil map of Victoria paired with information to support bioremediation of garden soils.

One of the first programs established at Royal Roads University, the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science program is now in its 20th year. Collaborative student teams partner with business, government or community groups to address a current environmental issue for their nine-month major project work.

“Group work is definitely a huge part of this program, and it’s a huge part of our project work as well. I really like how our project is very independent – we set our own goals with guidance of our sponsor and we divide the work among ourselves,” says Rae. We have to work with each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and it works quite well.”

The team’s contribution is significant, says Marika Smith, soil ecologist and Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre executive director.

“This is a fantastic project and we probably wouldn’t be able to do it without the assistance of Royal Roads and the student team,” she says. “This partnership means we can make soil testing available and make science completely accessible.”