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Green spaces host a rich variety of life just under the surface

Next time you’re out enjoying some pandemic-permitted exercise in your local park or mowing your nature strip, spare a thought for the ecosystem thriving just beneath that precious green space.

An international study, published in Science Advances journal on Saturday, found the microbial activity in the soils of more than 50 parks and verges in 17 countries often had more in common – and were richer – than less-cultivated habitat nearby.

Sydney’s Centennial Park during the lockdown this month. The microbial activity beneath the surface of green spaces worldwide has turned up a few surprises.

Sydney’s Centennial Park during the lockdown this month. The microbial activity beneath the surface of green spaces worldwide has turned up a few surprises.Credit:Louise Kennerley

The research examined soils from places such as Alice Springs and the University of Queensland’s Brisbane campus, Beijing’s Olympic Park and Uppsala Castle in Sweden. It was prompted by a study in New York City’s Central Park that found a surprising diversity of microbes.

“Parks are not the homogenised ecological deserts that we think they are – they are living ecosystems that do amazing things,” said David Eldridge, a professor at the University of NSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, and one of the paper’s co-authors.

“Urban green spaces harbour important microbes, so if you want to sustain a bunch of ecosystem services, you need to have plenty of parks and green spaces,” he said, adding that even nature strips turned out not to be “barren wastelands at all”.

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For instance, plants such as mosses can extract and sequester heavy metals from the atmosphere such as zinc, cadmium and manganese, Professor Eldridge said.

Not all the microbes are positive, though, with some linked to human pathogens such as listeria and diphtheria. However, those were more likely to be found in poorer nations where the water used to irrigate the turf might pick up antibiotics used for humans and livestock.

“The really interesting thing is that there was a strong link between a country’s gross domestic product and the abundance of the microbes that caused human diseases,” Professor Eldridge said.

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