Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Roger Williams University Bristol, RI, United States
Approximately 55% of the world’s human population lives in urban places, as will the vast majority of humans born in the foreseeable future. Thus, urbanization and urban societies have been and will continue to be dominant drivers of changes to the Earth system. One of the most impactful but overlooked environmental changes caused by urbanization is alteration of soil ecosystems, including the abundances of and relationships among the many organisms inhabiting soils. Though different, urban soil communities are species rich and contribute to vital urban ecosystem services. Conserving, managing, and restoring urban soil life and associated ecosystem services are major sustainability challenges that depend on expansion and application of relevant scientific knowledge. Addressing this challenge requires increasing education efforts aimed at improving society’s urban soil ecological literacy. Unfortunately, soil biodiversity and urban soils are not given the attention they deserve within environmental educational programs because, in part, urban soils are often stereotyped as degraded, polluted and thus, not worthy of study or appropriate for teaching goals, and many “bugs” in them are viewed as insignificant, irrelevant, scary, or perhaps harmful. Fortunately, such biases about urban soils and soil organisms can be countered through positive framing and educational strategies that introduce people to the joy, wonder, and benefits of life in urban soils. The goal of this presentation is to inspire more ecologists—not just soil ones—and environmental educators—not just ones in cities—to integrate urban soil biodiversity into their teaching. This will be done by sharing frameworks, focal points, and pedagogies that can be used to engage students in seeing, understanding, and appreciating urban soil life and its value for humanity. A newly developed “urban social-ecological soil systems” framework is useful for teaching people about their personal relationships with soil including how to manage landscapes to promote beneficial soil biodiversity. An effective focus for engaging people to think about the life literally under their feet is the ubiquitous lawn which is home to the full range of soil taxa. Simple hands-on, outdoor teaching activities like “dissecting” a soil cube and examining dry pitfall traps enable people to directly experience living organisms in urban soils which stimulates ecological curiosity and awareness. As such, expanding educational efforts that embrace and celebrate urban soil biodiversity is a vital way to help ensure a more successful future for both the science and sustainability of urban soil systems.