The Problem with Pittsburgh’s Soil
A look at issues facing urban agriculture in Pittsburgh


Urban Agriculture is an increasingly popular activity in the Pittsburgh region with a wide variety of gardens and farms in operation across the city and surrounding municipalities.

The Issue with Urban Agriculture
These spaces can offer fresh food access, healthy outdoor activity, community building, blight reduction and a myriad of other benefits. However, the sites and soils available for these projects carry risks and restrictive qualities that are unique to the urban environment, including lead and contaminants, artificial fill, poor soil nutrition and other features ill-suited for immediate use.

Assessing the extent of these issues can provide a baseline for understanding the investment needed to convert vacant urban land into agricultural spaces, as well as support the development of best practices for growing in these lots.

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A guerilla garden in Homewood

Studying Pittsburgh’s Vacant Lots
These increasingly pressing issues were the focus of thesis research, conducted by Urban Soils Fellow and 2019 Chatham Food Studies graduate Riley Sunday. This work examined 13 vacant parcels, previously mapped for heavy metal contamination by the Allegheny County Conservation District, and collected additional soil health data for each lot. Through this process, the research gauged the kinds of measurements needed to evaluate soil characteristics by adapting metrics from rural and urban soil assessments.

One major finding from this part of the study was the need to include rubble content in vacant lot studies. The research also collected qualitative observations of site characteristics such as neighborhood perceptions, presence of artifacts, and physical characteristics that contribute to recognized “good agricultural land.”

The use of both quantitative and qualitative measures is uncommon in soil studies, making this research an example of the important results that emerge when the two are combined.

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Lead samples collected from Pittsburgh's vacant lots

The Future of Urban Agriculture
Finally, the results examined if trends in vacant land conditions across the City of Pittsburgh exist and what implications those may hold for future urban agriculture use of vacant spaces. Many characteristics upheld trends from other research on vacant lots, like widespread lead contamination, which could pose challenges to future growing.

The Impact of Community
Meanwhile strong community interest and engagement in garden and green projects emphasized how knowledgeable and engaged communities can overcome soil obstacles. Low overall uniformity across spaces both in the soil and in the community, however, present challenges at the policy level for creating land use policies that address risk of using polluted land while recognizing the strengths of the lots and where they are located.

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A sample of rubble from Homewood

Riley Sunday

Agriculture Conservationist

Beginning as an Urban Soils Fellow while completing graduate work at Chatham University, Riley joined the full-time staff in 2019. Her background includes a bachelors in Environmental Geography and experience working on farms domestically and internationally. Outside of work, Riley enjoys powerlifting, fermentation and working with goats.

Phone: 412-291-8004