Approach

Our approach combines two investigative strands within urban food growing.

First of all we will compare soil quality in rooftop/vertical gardens and ground-level growing sites within the same areas.

Secondly we will investigate if novice growers benefit through better nature-connectedness by actively measuring and monitoring soil health, how this can be performed simply and whether there is a difference in perceived quality compared to environmental measures of soil quality? 

BIC Innovation are learning from projects such as Skyfarm in Melbourne Australia to develop rooftop growing schemes at different scales in Cardiff. Findings from the EQUI-Food project will help to improve understanding of soil health for rooftop, vertical and ground-level urban growers.

We will address these through the following research questions (RQ):

RQ1: How do we simply measure quality of soil and water in urban ecosystems?

RQ2: How do we compare perceived quality over measured quality?

RQ3: How does an understanding of soil quality relate to nature connectedness and benefits to health and wellbeing?

We will achieve this through the following objectives:

1. Measure soil quality at allotments and rooftop/vertical gardens with novice food growers (RQ1, RQ2).

2. Using a Citizen Science approach, provide up to 60 experienced and novice food growers with a growing and measuring kit that includes seeds, soil quality measuring materials and a bespoke mobile application to conduct and self-report simple measurements and perceptions of soil health (RQ2).

3. Use validated psychometric tools (Nature Connection Index, NCI [2]; Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale, WEMBS [3]; SF-12 Health Survey [4]) to quantify the impact that engaging with nature via soil quality assessment has on well-being in growers and novice-growers (RQ3).

4. Evaluate the feasibility of the methodology for future upscaling of research and its application.

Using existing research mobile and web application Our Place, (produced by Open Lab, Newcastle University), we will invite growers to photograph and describe what is happening with their soil.

Work Packages

The project comprises four interconnected work packages combining our investigative strands to address the research questions and objectives outlined above. WP1 will combine a systematic literature review and experimental measurement of soil quality and rooftop/vertical and ground-based growing sites (RQ1, RQ2, Objective 1). WP2 will use a Citizen Science approach to assess the results and feasibility of providing experienced and novice growers with a kit that allows them to simply self-assess and report measures of soil quality at allotment/home food growing sites (RQ2, Objective 2). WP3 will use validated psychometric assessments to measure how engaging with nature via ecosystem quality assessment (WP2) impacts on nature connection, health and well-being (RQ3, Objective 3). WP4 will evaluate the feasibility of this methodological approach (WP1-3) to determine its use and scaling approach in a larger-scale study of urban rooftop growing and disseminate findings to key practitioner networks.

WP1: A desk-based literature review to inform best practice for the implementation of roof-top farming, linking specifically to a BIC feasibility project for roof-top farming in Cardiff. Concurrently, utilising BIC contacts, we will undertake a soil health assessment of an existing urban roof-top garden and compare with ground level sites within the same locale. Research to date has shown that a significant barrier to urban food growing is the perception of risk and lead levels [5], so soil analysis will include heavy metal measurements using pXRF equipment at RAU.

Soil samples will be collected by researchers and participants from different urban sites and analysed for soil chemistry such as metals and biological activity such as microbes.

WP2: We will recruit 60 experienced and novice growers in Cardiff and Liverpool to undertake a 4-month Citizen Science experiment. They will be provided with an ecosystem assessment monitoring pack consisting of cotton strips (for soil activity measurements), soil pH testing kit and Borage seeds (to be used as an indicator of successful growing). We will create instructional resources and a mobile app for regular collection of qualitative self-reports of sensory perceptions of soil health including photographs/videos of the soil, pH strip results, and Borage growth. The monitoring pack and app will be developed from Clarke’s recent research on ‘More-than-Human Data Interactions’ part of the Human-Data Interactions EPSRC Network+ and Open Lab’s Our Place app mapping quality green urban spaces. This will be correlated with soil analysis and quantitative measures of nature connectedness and wellbeing through a pre/post study survey. This is a similar approach to Crotty [6], where soil temperatures and daffodil flowering was monitored across Wales with participating farmers. Experienced and novice growers will be recruited to test for differences in previously productive soils, and ease of use of the assessment measures for novice growers. Borage has been chosen as its leaves and flowers are edible, it is a visually appealing herb that is attractive to pollinators and grows during the experimental period. Borage prefers free-draining soil, therefore will grow poorly in waterlogged/compacted soils, so could be considered an indicator of the soil’s physical health.

Example resources we will be using with growers developed from the ‘More-than-human data in the smart city’ project.

WP3: Engagement with nature and urban food growing has been shown to be beneficial for health and well-being [7,8], however the impact that ecosystem quality has on this relationship is unclear. Participants in WP2 will complete self-report assessments of nature connection, health and well-being (NCI, WEMWBS, SF-12) at the start and end of WP2 to assess if/how engagement with nature via the Citizen Science activities in WP2 impact health and well-being, and if the novice growers experience similar benefits to experienced growers as a result of engaging in the soil monitoring project.

WP4: A qualitative evaluation of the project success and feasibility will be performed to inform BIC’s large-scale grant application to implement this methodology at scale in a £5m urban rooftop farm in Cardiff. This will be presented to practitioner partners (BIC) and detailed in a peer-reviewed manuscript submitted to Nature Food, presenting results of WP1-3. We will produce a policy briefing to circulate through the network and urban farming organisations (e.g. Edible Cardiff, Cardiff County Council, Welsh Government), as this will be more relevant to practitioners in applying the learning from the research and further developing future funding proposals. We will create a project blog and website that summarises key learning and helps the team reflect on approach taken.