"Designer" Soils: a critical physical geography analysis of engineered soils for stormwater management

Authors: Marissa Matsler*, Cary Institute, Melanie Malone, The Oregon Extension, Erin Looper, Portland State University
Topics: Urban Geography, Environment, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: urban soil, green infrastructure, Critical Physical Geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Nottoway, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In this paper, we examine soils that have been designed for stormwater management in bioswales across U.S. cities. Bioswales are green infrastructure facilities which explicitly use ecological components (i.e. plants, trees, soils) to provide stormwater retention and treatment. While bioswales are based on specific ecological structures and functions, they have been implemented in much the same way in drastically different ecological contexts – a bioswale in Portland, OR looks nearly identical to a bioswale in Baltimore, MD, even though the precipitation patterns and native vegetation are quite different.

Soils in bioswales are specifically designed to have “known” functionality; in situ urban soils, in contrast, have been determined to be too unpredictable for use in stormwater treatment. Facing a legacy of damaging human use, movement, and activity, urban soils are accused of being “dangerous”, “indeterminate”, and “dead.” Urban soils lack familiar soil horizons, classification schemes, and are sometimes not even referred to as “real soil.” Precautions are taken in cities to remove, remediate, or cap urban soils so that they do not come in contact with people. Essentially, urban soils are ignored and avoided. As large sums of money are dedicated to bioswales in cities - with undefined parameters for stormwater management success and variability in effectiveness - we investigate the implications of "designer soils". In doing so, we question whether any biophysical utility is being achieved through the incorporation of bioswales into the cities or whether the bioswales have become a tokenized marker of green infrastructure success.

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