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Heavy Metals in San Francisco Vegetable Gardens

By Jennifer Gorospe, 2010 Douglas Dockery Thomas Fellowship winner

1-sfgarden-500wThe summer of 2010 is one I will never forget — I visited 100 San Francisco vegetable gardens. There were community gardens with multi-million dollar views and an amazing assortment of backyard gardens. Some featured ponds, rainwater catch- ment, and greywater systems. Many incorporated terraces to take advantage of SF’s steep hillsides, with several “backyard” gardens actually on porches, patios and outdoor stairwells. Some gardens had bee hives or chickens, while others made creative use of whatever resources they had, including neighbor’s yards and broken Ikea furniture as planters. What they all had in common, though, were gardeners eager to know how safe it was to eat items grown there.

With support from the GCA/Douglas Dockery Thomas Fellowship in Garden History and Design and the California EPA’s Environmental Justice Small Grants program, I tested 100 vegetable gardens in San Francisco for 16 different heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, and arsenic. Some of the findings were not a surprise (raised bed gardens tend to have less metals than in-ground gardens), but from an Environmental Justice standpoint, I was surprised to find that high levels of lead are more often found in predominately White neighborhoods. 

2-leadrace-500wThe Asian and African American neighborhoods studied had the lowest median metal concentrations even though these areas include an active superfund site, a California Department of Toxic Substances Control remediation cleanup, plus other known and suspected pollution sources. Also of note was that neighborhoods with older homes (like San Francisco’s famous Victorians) showed higher amounts of lead than areas with newer homes, pointing to a relationship between lead-based paint and garden soil lead concentrations.

3-voltagegarden-500wMost gardeners I encountered through this project did not know how to get their soil tested nor how to determine whether it is safe. I was not able to say what is definitely safe and what is not because in researching the current guidelines for “safe levels” of heavy metals in soil (for residential areas, brown- fields, and gardens), I found the information to be inconsistent, not easily accessible, and confusing to interpret. I believe that the EPA should consider updating its garden soil guidelines to reflect levels published by other agencies and utilize public health agencies to engage gardeners in a dialog about heavy metals and safe gardening practices.

Besides providing free soil testing to local gardeners, I wanted my project to engage the gardening community. To this end, I hosted community meetings, created educational pamphlets, and launched a website, all aimed at helping gardeners eat as safely as possible from their gardens. The website includes the pamphlets, results from the soil testing, and a list of published “safe levels”. It can be accessed at https://sites.google.com/site/healthygardeners.

Jennifer is a master’s degree candidate in Environmental Studies at San José State University, where she is works as a Project Coordinator for the Office of Sustainability.

Mission Santa Barbara Project Complete for LAF Fellowship Winner

In 2008 Michael Sanchez, a Masters of Landscape Architecture student at the University of Oregon, won the GCA/Douglas Dockery Thomas Fellowship in Garden History and Design. His proposed project — to explore, document and present one of California’s most treasured outdoor spaces, the gardens of Mission Santa Barbara — ultimately became his master’s thesis. The $4,000 fellowship award helped Michael fund travel and supplies for a two-week research trip to the site and its archive.

mission01Michael’s research examines the integration of landscape representation, through a series of ‘over-drawings’,  as a method of exploring and promoting the historic preservation of landscapes. Through mapping, photography, painting and intaglio printmaking, he aims to portray landscapes in a way that engenders future exploration and preservation of these valuable cultural resources.

mission02His recently-completed thesis work, Mission Santa Barbara | Visually Explored, showcases Michael’s rich and diverse artistic skills while exploring aspects of the site’s history, context, and scale. According to his synopsis:

“This project is not a typical historical analysis of the landscape of Mission Santa Barbara, nor a detailed historic rendering of the beautiful architecture and mission06surrounding landscape. Nor is this merely a literary compilation. This project is a unique perspective between all of the professionals that tell stories of the missions — architects, landscape architects, planners, artists, historians, archeologists, anthropologists, Padres, tourists, etc. — and is woven into a product rich in illustrations and backed by interesting facts and sources.”

mission05With his MLA now in hand, Michael’s immediate priorities are sleep, recovery and spending time with his family. Ultimately he would like to teach, and plans to do some adjunct teaching at the University of Oregon next year. He currently works as a landscape architect for a small design firm in Eugene.

Download Mission Santa Barbara | Visually Explored manuscript (pdf, 12.8MB)
Download Mission Santa Barbara graphics (pdf, 5.8MB)