The rise of urban gardens in historically industrial city may be a shock to many, but they’re happening, and big time.  These gardens provide free or at least inexpensive food that is healthy and sustainable as well as educate children and other community members about food production and rehabilitating the local ecosystem.

Along with these benefits questions also have come up.

Is there a risk of contamination when growing gardens in cities, especially historically industrial ones like Detroit?

Will metals, antibiotics, pesticides, foodborne bacteria and more get into the food?

Wayne State University wants to help answer those questions. The university’s researchers recently launched an initiative to determine the prevalence of contaminants in urban agriculture soil in Detroit, establish linkages among the contaminants and identify the agricultural risk factors for the contamination.

For example, lead is found in a surprisingly large number of urban soil samples. While plants don’t absorb lead through their root systems, root vegetables like carrots and potatoes can absorb lead through the skin. Lead can also bind to the outer layers of vegetables that grow close to the ground, such as lettuce.

Arsenic and cadmium as well as petro-chemical residue and industrial cleaning solvents, many of which are carcinogens, are also frequently found in urban soil.

Wayne researchers will now take “an integrated approach to ensuring food safety and sustainability in urban agriculture in the greater Detroit area” thanks to a $293,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and the Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture. The project will determine answers needed about biological, physical, and chemical contamination in urban environments.

“Our work will open up new research directions tailored to an urban institution, yet still address important agricultural issues,” said Yifan Zhang, assistant professor of nutrition and food science in Wayne State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “In addition, our work will provide us with an opportunity to develop outreach materials based on our research findings to provide communities with guidance on how to grow food safely and in a sustainable manner.”

The project, which will impact research, education and outreach in food and agricultural sciences, will provide:

  • Data on physical, chemical and biological contamination in soil and vegetables in urban agriculture
  • New curricula in food and agricultural sciences addressing urban agriculture and environmental impact on food safety and sustainability
  • Outreach materials for urban gardeners

Zhang is leading the project along with co-project directors Lawrence Lemke, Ph.D., associate professor of geology at WSU; Kequan Zhou Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition and food science at WSU; and Fay Hansen, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences at Oakland University. Shawn McElmurry, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in WSU’s College of Engineering is collaborating on the project.


You don’t have to wait for the results of this project to garden safely. There are things you can do if you’re an urban gardener.

  • Research the history of the area where you plan on growing
  • Have the soil tested
  • Look into raised beds but take care when selecting wood since lumber is often treated with chemicals that stop rotting and these chemicals can be absorbed by soil and eventually, your plants

There is no way to know what will come from the study, but what is known is that with urban gardens in Detroit becoming more and more of a fixture, whatever is found it will affect the city, the people and the land in ways of long consequence.

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