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Field Guide to Phytoremediation's video poster

FIELD LAB and FIELD GUIDE make research about the power of plants to clean our environment more visible and accessible to people. Read more

New York, NY Design
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This project was successfully funded on July 30, 2011.

FIELD LAB and FIELD GUIDE make research about the power of plants to clean our environment more visible and accessible to people.

New York, NY Design
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About this project


In 2010, youarethecity created the Field Guide to Phytoremediation, a DIY handbook to cleaning up toxic soils in your own backyard, neighborhood vacant lot, or other urban space. Working with soil scientists, urban farming activists, community groups, and others interested on (and in) the ground, we have expanded this research. We need your help to make this process more visible and accessible to anyone. We want to print 2,000 copies of the field guide, to distribute for free, and to create on-site installations that illustrate and explain the process of phytoremediation at field lab sites throughout New York City. 


We created a Field Guide to Phytoremediation to illustrate how property owners can  initiate a slow but cost-effective clean-up process using nature as their ally to add 11,000 acres of productive, usable land to the City‘s healthy environment.

The Field Guide is a do-it-yourself guidebook with step-by-step instructions for testing, planting, monitoring, and harvesting. It gives recommendations of plants that have successfully removed contaminants and informs you about the levels of contamination in your soil that are safe to play, build housing, or grow food in.


At La Finca del Sur, a community farm in the South Bronx, we are creating FIELD LAB, where we plant, monitor, and harvest several varieties of plants known for their qualities to remove toxins from the soil.

To introduce the concepts of phytoremediation to the many volunteers and school groups that visit the farm, we want to build an installation that illustrates the process otherwise invisible and informs community members about the various capacities that different plants have to clean up the soil. The installation is based on a single multi-purpose module that can be used as information signage, garden furniture, gardening tool storage or a planter box.

PHYTOREMEDIATIONPhytoremediation is the use of plants to remove contaminants from the environment. By harnessing the natural capabilities of plants we can remediate toxic soils, groundwater, surface water, and sediments. Phytoremediation is a low-cost alternative to traditional brownfield clean-up. Instead of removing tons of toxic soil and filling the site with new clean soil, plants remove contaminants from the soil and store it within their plant tissue. In some cases, the plants themselves then have to be removed as hazardous waste, other plants break down the toxins and eliminate them altogether.

The table below
gives examples of levels of acceptable soil contamination for certain recreational, residential or food production uses (as recommended by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation) and suggests plant material most effective in remediating each contaminant.

Contaminants successfully removed in field studies have included heavy metals, radionuclides, chlorinated solvents, petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and explosives. Different plants have different remediative qualities. Plants offer an aesthetic as well as an environmental value to the city beyond the phytoremediation process. Improved air quality and reduction of storm water run-off are among the additional benefits of planting on sites that would otherwise be underutilized until funding for soil removal becomes available.


According to the Department of City Planning’s most recent data, there are over 30,000 vacant lots in New York City.  Taken together, these properties amount to approximately 11,000 acres of underutilized land — roughly the size of Manhattan (not counting streets). Imagine: across the five boroughs there is enough available land to fill Manhattan, with the potential to grow fresh food, create new parks or build affordable housing. But many of these vacant sites are potentially contaminated by previous industrial uses or leftover building materials, especially lead-based paint. Contamination and the potential health hazards to people who live, work or play on or near such sites become subject to oversight and regulation only in the event of a rezoning permitting residential uses. In those cases, a site receives an e-designation, which identifies it as potentially hazardous due to previous industrial uses. Once designated, site owners are obligated to submit to a process of site investigation and clean up.

In May of 2009, Mayor Bloomberg signed the New York City Brownfield and Community Revitalization Act, a milestone in the City’s commitment to cleaning up brownfields for productive reuse in accordance with PlaNYC. Citing the scarcity of land in New York City and the anticipated influx of one million new residents by 2030, PlaNYC identified the importance of cleanup and redevelopment of properties that are abandoned and underutilized due to the presence or perceived presence of contamination. As part of this effort, the City has created the Office of Environmental Remediation, which oversees the environmental review of brownfield sites and offers assistance to property owners on the path to a Green Property Certification and potential redevelopment.

50% of all vacant properties in the city are smaller than 2,500sf and individually owned. 80% are smaller than 5,000sf. Remediation, typically in the form of excavation of the contaminated soil, is costly, despite programs, assistance and grants now available. As a result, these small properties lie vacant for years, underutilized and toxic, their value further diminished by the appearance of abandonment and potential contamination.


We want to raise $4000 to cover printing costs for 2,000 copies of the field guide (to distribute for free), and to pay for materials and construction for the field lab on-site installations.


By donating to this project, you will receive (see details on the right):

Donating any amount will get you access to tools that will help you start your own phytoremediation field project.  THANK YOU so much for your support!


  • Yes, youarethecity is working with soil scientists at Brooklyn College, Cornell University, and Lyndon State College of Vermont to make sure that FIELD LAB and FIELD GUIDE are up-to-date with the latest phytoremediation and soil contamination research and knowledge, that all information in the field guide is accurate and fact-based, and that field lab experiments are useful and beneficial.

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  • Currently, the field lab is located at La Finca del Sur, a community farm in the South Bronx at 138th Street and Grand Concourse.

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  • With adequate resources, we hope to create many other field labs within some of the 30,000 vacant lots in New York City - and hopefully beyond. In addition, we hope that this project provides a toolkit for creating self-maintained field labs anywhere, so that knowledge of the phytoremediation process can spread while toxic soils are remediated.

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  • We are interested in developing tools for community action. As the name of our practice suggests, all of us, including you are the city. We all need to take responsibility for our environment.
    Phytoremediation is a strategy that individuals and community groups with limited resources can start on their own to mitigate toxic substances in their backyards. While the plants clean the soil, they contribute to the social and natural ecology of the city.

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  • We will mail you a copy of the field guide in appreciation of your donation of $10 or more. Alternately, you can download a summary version of the field guide from our website,

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  • You selected
    Pledge $5 or more

    2 backers

    FRIEND: You will be invited to one of our tours the Field Lab at La Finca and you will credited as a supporter in the FIELD GUIDE.

  • You selected
    Pledge $10 or more

    32 backers

    GOOD FRIEND: You will receive a copy of the FIELD GUIDE and will be invited to one of our tours of La Finca.

  • You selected
    Pledge $25 or more

    24 backers

    SELF-STARTER: You will receive a copy of the field guide together with a starter kit of seeds to start your own phytoremediation project plus an invitation to one of our tours of La Finca.

  • You selected
    Pledge $50 or more

    10 backers

    RADICAL OPTIMIST: You will receive an illustrated DIY guide to building our outdoor structures for your own field lab + field guide to phytoremediation + starter kit of seeds.

  • You selected
    Pledge $75 or more

    2 backers

    NIMBY: No lead in your backyard? We will test your soil for you and send you a report explaining the results together with a field guide and a starter kit of seeds to start your own phytoremediation project.

  • You selected
    Pledge $150 or more

    2 backers

    MODERN UTOPIAN: You will receive all of the above + fashionable yet functional PHYTOREMEDIATION GARDENING GLOVES! -OR- 30 copies of the field guide with a guided tour for you and your friends, your community group, or school class. You invite -we host!

  • You selected
    Pledge $500 or more

    1 backer Limited (9 left of 10)

    SOIL ALCHEMIST: You will receive all of the above + a limited edition piece of our outdoor structures for your own field lab, rooftop terrace or backyard.

Funding period

- (30 days)