Soil Repair Project Summary

We propose a pilot project in Cleveland, Ohio, that offers hands-on educational workshops on soil health to residents, teaching low-tech strategies for repairing our city’s damaged soil base one vacant lot at a time.  The program would target the large amount of vacant lots in Cleveland without future development plans, with the goals of regaining lost fertility and maximizing our soil’s ability to sequester carbon.  Public art on each site would document the lot’s soil history and restoration efforts.  This request for support for citizen-led urban soil repair is addressed to the USDA’s Climate Change Program Office and the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Soil Quality Team.


Poor soil and poverty go hand in hand.  The living earth that feeds us, when sickened, eroded, denuded and polluted will no longer support those who live on it.
Worldwide, this simple knowledge has lately been amplified by climate change.  Soil depletion due to erosive agricultural practices[1], heavy grazing, industrial pollution and unchecked development has contributed significantly to the climate crisis.  World Bank research has shown that it is overwhelmingly poor (and some middle-income) nations who are most in danger of drought, flooding, heat waves and crop failure due to climate change. People living in poverty on depleted soils face tremendous threat from food scarcity due to these extreme weather fluctuations.

Those of us living in US cities, most of whom have lived our whole lives on food shipped in from great distances, have not had to directly contend with the dramatic relationship between soil and poverty.  Yet it’s a story more of us are beginning to understand as we work to produce food within our city limits, and find that our soil base is in grave condition. If our city was fully dependent on locally produced food, our soil base at the moment could not support us. That is a major poverty.  Mirroring the global situation, the worst off land in our cities is often where the poorest people live.

Cleveland’s land area is largely made up of hard surfaces (parking lots, streets, buildings), while the areas that do have permeable soil are typically in very poor condition. Our soils are severely compacted by buildings and traffic; often polluted by industrial wastes, heavy metals, lead paint and road salt; and infilled with debris from the demolition of past structures.  Soil is often weedy, rocky or bare, with poor water absorption and nutrient levels.

To top it off, our soil base is fragmented– a huge number of vacant lots, widely dispersed.  With a population decline of 470,000 people since 1950, vacant land now dominates Cleveland’s landscape.  20,000 lots sit vacant.  Recent years have seen a marked shift from city-planning based on aggressive development to land-planning (efforts like Re-Imagining Cleveland) that encourages residents to reclaim vacant lots for community gardens, rain gardens and innovative green space.

The question is, what can be done with the least-attractive, least fertile spaces, with no development plan or labor-intensive reclamation plans on the horizon?  Lots like this (ie: half-size residential lots, lots in neighborhoods with extreme overall vacancy, and lots adjacent to abandoned industrial areas) are everywhere in the city, and they provide an amazing opportunity to regenerate our ailing soil city-wide, lot by lot, and in doing so, to combat global warming.

The role healthy soil can play in sequestering carbon is not focused on much.  The world’s soils contain more carbon than the atmosphere and biosphere combined.  Carbon dioxide pulled from the atmosphere makes up over half of the organic matter in healthy soil.  This is a natural process that can be encouraged through good land management, sequestering carbon in soil and stabilizing it for long periods of time.?Imagine the possibility this holds for people in cities who want to be a part of reversing our alarming climate crisis.  There is more that can be done, and more that needs to be done than simply cutting our fuel consumption and waiting for resource-intensive technological interventions to save the day. Ordinary people around the world have accomplished extraordinarily quick, low-tech restorations of ecologically devastated areas, by taking small steps on a massive scale. Kenya’s Green Belt Movement has organized rural women to plant over 40 million trees across Africa, regenerating deforested and eroded areas.  Farmers near China’s Lowess Plateau, a steeply sloped, completely denuded landscape in the early 1990’s, reversed the desertification by temporarily stopping farming and grazing, terracing the mountainside and planting trees.

In a similar way, small-scale healings of vacant urban lots carried out by ordinary people can make a large impact, slowly piecing together a landscape of healthy soils that sequester carbon, in place of the damaged land that now surrounds us.

Soil-Building Strategies

We propose hands-on soil-building workshops where Cleveland residents can participate in soil repair, learning about the connection between healthy soil and our city’s health and the role soil  plays in climate change.

Strategies will vary according to the conditions on each site.  Our first step on each lot will be assessment: testing soil, looking at water flow, interacting with the surrounding neighborhood and figuring out what approaches would help us do the most good with the least input.

To help direct water into the soil, we will dig swales (trenches) for holding and slowly spreading rainwater throughout the site.  We will work to break up compacted sites without disturbing soil layers using methods like double-digging, soil-staking (driving wooden stakes into the ground and allowing them to rot), planting plants with deep tap roots (like daikon radishes) and in some cases, doing an initial tilling of the site.
Adding organic matter to the soil, through sheet-mulching (layering waste material like cardboard, compost, leaves, woodchips and manure, and sometimes imported topsoil), applying compost, compost tea, biochar and green sand can greatly improve the texture and diversity of life in damaged soil and prepare the site for planting.  Our city’s waste stream can provide huge amounts of these materials for amending soil.

We will plant trees and other plants that act as nature’s wound-healers, densely planted and intensively managed by quickly cycling the plants back into the soil.  We will select for fast-growing species that fix a lot of carbon and feed soil microbes. Cover crops (like vetch, cowpeas, clover, lupine) fix nitrogen in the soil through their roots and can be chopped, dropped onto the soil and left to compost.  Fast-growing pioneer trees (like locust, willow, mulberry) excel at building soil for the next stage of plant growth.  When densely planted, some of the trees can later be harvested for building materials, firewood or soil amendments.
To further include Clevelanders in soil restoration, we propose public art installations at sites we work on that track the soil history of the lot.  The markers will track if there is housing infill onsite, what dumping has occurred there, what industry is nearby, if there has been agricultural usage of the site and if pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used.  We would also document steps taken to restore the site. These soil monuments would visibly connect our fragmented land base and tell the stories of our soil’s past and future.

The beauty of these strategies is that regular people can carry them out, and in doing so, connect deeply with the soil that supports us.  These methods do not require heavy machinery, resources from far away, or special technology.  Yet, they are effective ways to build soil fertility and the soil’s ability to absorb and stabilize carbon fairly quickly.  Through a series of consistent interactions with these sites, regular people can change the course of our city’s soil.

Proposed Governmental Support

We request support for citizen-led soil repair in urban areas.  This could include compiling and widely distributing on-the-ground data on what approaches are working best for soil repair and carbon sequestration on urban sites; creating funding streams for efforts that involve urban residents in soil repair; providing incentives to cities that support soil repair on vacant land; and supporting community-based projects to consolidate and reuse urban waste streams, compost on a large-scale, build plant nurseries and locally produce soil amendments.

We urge a paradigm shift in our approach to climate change, one that involves us in stewarding our land base.  As we have seen elsewhere, one act of repair at a time can be an incredibly powerful approach.


Cleveland artist and author Kate Sopko uses public dialogues and social experimentation to bring people together in examining our ways of living.  Her 2008 book Stewards of the Lost Lands looked at what social movement can mean between damaged people and a deeply damaged earth.  In 2011, she curated Survival Postures, an experiment in which 17 people documented learning how to do a task necessary to their survival.  She is an urban farmer and a board member of the Green Triangle.
The Green Triangle is a permaculture education non-profit that teaches community workshops on hands-on ecological design throughout Cleveland.   They work to create social, economic, and ecological sustainability by helping develop and disseminate best practices in sustainable building, home energy reduction, edible forest gardening, native plant restoration, bioremediation and storm water management.

[1] 55 billion tons of carbon have been released from soil into the atmosphere from tilling.