Cranfield University is partnering in a new £1.8 million project to analyse soil in urban areas and its importance to the health of the environment and society.


The Functionality of urban soils supporting ecosystem service delivery (FUSED) project is one of 14 initiatives recently announced as part of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) new round of highlight topics, focusing on the most pressing research and societal issues in the environmental sciences.


With increasing urbanisation, there is an urgent need to advance knowledge of the properties of major soil types across highly fragmented urban landscapes. Soil samples will be analysed from a wide range of urban sites, including former greenfield sites developed for housing, soil under paving slabs, and former industrial and redeveloped brownfield sites.


Professor Wilfred Otten, Professor of Soil Biophysics at Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute, said: “Urban soil provides vital services to humans, but is neither protected nor well understood. Healthy urban soils are critical to the success of green infrastructure projects, which aim to work with nature to provide an ecological framework for improved social, economic and environmental health.


“Cranfield, together with colleagues from Abertay University, will lead on the physical characterisation of the soil and explore links between its properties and the role they play in delivering ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling and waste detoxification. This will include the use of X-ray visualisation technology to reveal inner soil structures, and the development of novel biophysical modelling approaches that predict the resilience and stability of urban soil biodiversity and the ecosystem services it delivers.”


Dr Alex Dumbrell, a molecular soil ecologist from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex, who is leading the project, said: “Soil provides critical ecosystem services that underpin human society and wellbeing. In this unique study we will profile the biodiversity of urban soils, examining everything from microbes to earth worms. This will be combined with quantifying how nitrogen and carbon are cycled through urban soils, how harmful pollutants and toxicants are remediated in urban soils, and how these soils contribute to supporting life aboveground.”


Ned Garnett, NERC Association Director of Research, said: “The highlight topics programme allows us to receive ideas from both the research community and users of environmental science to ensure that we are providing funding where it is most needed. The provision of top quality environmental research has never been more essential as we continue to tackle some of the greatest environmental challenges of our time.”


The urban soil project will inform the biotech-chemical industry on operational best-practice – enabling improved mitigation strategies to be developed for chemical detoxification and removal – and Environment Agency policy on the regulation of waste from the chemical industry.  


Read more on the NERC announcement here and the announcement by the University of Essex here.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.

Environment and Agrifood at Cranfield

For the past 50 years, Cranfield has been contributing to enhancing natural capital and ensuring that global food systems are more resilient for the future. We are recognised worldwide by industry, government and academe for our research and teaching in plants, soil, water and air.

We believe that environmental problems can be alleviated through technological innovation and risk management.

Cranfield is a key partner in two of the four UK Government-sponsored Agri-tech Centres – Agri-Epi (Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre) and CHaP (Crop Health and Protection), with over £10 million invested in new infrastructure since 2017.

Our education, research and consultancy is enhanced by our world-class facilities including the National Reference Centre for Soils, which houses the largest collection of its kind in Europe and is recognised as the UK’s definitive source of national soils information, and our big data visualisation suite, which has tools to analyse big data collections including environmental resources from 280 countries/territories worldwide.

In 2017, Cranfield was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for research and education in large-scale soil and environmental data for the sustainable use of natural resources in the UK and worldwide, the first time in the Prize’s history that an award has been given for soil science.