FUSED - Functionality of Urban Soils supporting Ecosystem service Delivery

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex
Department Name: Life Sciences


Soil ecosystems provide critical ecosystem services that underpin human societies and wellbeing. Among others, these include: nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, waste detoxification, and supporting primary productivity. The delivery of these ecosystem services is dependent upon the biodiversity contained within the soil, and the ecosystem processes and functions it regulates. A positive relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem processes/function has been well documented in natural and agricultural soils, and importantly has been demonstrated to change following even very small or localised modifications to the soils environment. Thus modifications to soils that change the biodiversity present, will alter the delivery of ecosystem services on which humanity depends. However, a large amount of soil within the UK (and N. Europe) is contained within urban environments, and despite these comprising a huge variety of different soils types with a vast range of internal modifications, we know practically nothing about the biodiversity contained in these urban soils, the relationships between this and the ecosystem processes/functions it supports, and how this links to the delivery of key ecosystem services.

Our project (FUSED) will address all these knowledge gaps, by examining the links between the physical and chemical structure of urban soil, the biodiversity it contains, the ecosystem processes and functions this supports and the delivery of four key ecosystem services (nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, waste detoxification, and primary productivity). To achieve this we will focus on existing gradients of urbanisation in SE England. This region comprises areas of long-term industrial use, areas redeveloped upon an industrial legacy, green spaces, new urban developments, alongside urban conurbations ranging from small villages with low human population densities, to high-density cities, and with smaller areas of pristine habitat and large swaths of agricultural land - providing the full catalogue of urban soil types, from entirely natural, those modified for agriculture and urban green space, to Technosols formed from artificial material and soils with sealed (e.g. under paving/roads) surfaces. Importantly this region, as a historical and contemporary focus of urban development, provides a window into the future of what the wider UK landscape will look like and the novel urban ecosystems it will contain.

First we will identify generalisations by examining how the environmental context (degree of urbanisation, combined with contemporary and historical land-use, alongside urban soil type present) the urban soil is present in influences biodiversity, ecosystem processes/functions and ecosystem service delivery. Building upon this, we will establish a series of experimental manipulations that allow examination of how resilient and resistance urban soil biodiversity and associated ecosystem processes/functions are to modification and changes in environmental context. This combined, with tracking urban soil ecosystem through time, will provide a unique understanding of the ecological stability of these systems. Finally, we will integrate all collected data into a modelling framework that will provide a mechanistic understanding of factors underpinning the responses of soil biodiversity, ecosystem processes/functions and delivery of ecosystem services to current and future modifications.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?
FUSED takes a multidisciplinary approach to better understand the physical, chemical and biological characteristics in urban soil (and urban dust), and how these change across urban environments. There are several end-user beneficiaries in both private & public sectors including the Environment Agency (EA), Defra, Department of Health (DoH), Public Health England, NHS hospital and healthcare authorities, industry e.g. chemical and waste processing companies, County Councils and local authorities all of which who can promote the project findings and make sure the recommendations are taken up. The project will also benefit academics and the public.

How will they benefit?
Project outputs have the potential to enhance quality of life, health & environment as follows:

1) Urban soil chemical data (including aerial deposition via urban dust) will inform biotech-chemical industry on operational best-practice enabling improved mitigation strategies to be developed for chemical detoxification and removal. It will also inform EA policy of the regulation of waste from the chemical industry.

2) DNA sequence data can be used by researchers to identify key functional group of microbes and their genes as a biomarker proxy for potential contaminant detoxification and removal. This will allow a more targeted management of urban soils in locations in close proximity to industry or industrial legacy where contaminant exposure poses potential risks.

3) The metagenetic and microbial data will inform EA, Defra, local authorities, and industry on how microbial functional diversity changes following urban soil modification.

4) Microbiome data; specifically microbial community structure, gene abundance and expression e.g. those encoding N-cycle transformations will provide important insights into how urban soils can be exploited. For example, to increase plant N metabolism and soil N cycling enabling increased nutrient status of such soils for plant productivity. This will inform Defra's policies on the impact of nutrient pollution on the environment (e.g. Nitrates Directive, Water Framework Directive, EA policy of Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive).

5) Data from the project will produce a model providing a better understanding of the ecosystem services provided by urban soils and urban dust to the built environment. This will enable County Councils, local Authorities (especially Town Planners) to manage urban soil changes in the future in an informed manner, thus reducing potential environmental exposure and human health risk.

6) The project will produce three trained PDRAs with molecular, analytical and modelling skills who can enter private/public sector marketplace.

7) Any IP resulting from the project will foster industrial collaborators and enhance economic competitiveness of UK.


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