China has experienced rapid urbanization in recent years. The acceleration of urbanization has created wealth and opportunity as well as intensified ecological and environmental problems, especially soil pollution. Our study concentrated on the variation of heavy metal content due to urbanization in the vegetable-growing soil. Laws and other causes of the spatial-temporal variation in heavy metal content of vegetable-growing soils were analyzed for the period of urbanization in Nanjing (the capital of Jiangsu province in China). The levels of Cu, Zn, Pb, Cd and Hg in samples of vegetable-growing soil were detected. The transverse, vertical spatio-temporal variation of heavy metals in soil was analyzed on the base of field investigations and laboratory analysis. The results show that: (1) in soil used for vegetable production, the levels of heavy metals decreased gradually from urban to rural areas; the levels of the main heavy metals in urban areas are significantly higher than suburban and rural areas; (2) the means of the levels of heavy metals, calculated by subtracting the sublayer (15–30 cm) from the toplayer (0–15 cm), are all above zero and large in absolute value in urban areas, but in suburban and rural areas, the means are all above or below zero and small in absolute value. The causes of spatial and temporal variation were analyzed as follows: one cause was associated with mellowness of the soil and the length of time the soil had been used for vegetable production; the other cause was associated with population density and industrial intensity decreasing along the urban to rural gradient (i.e., urbanization levels can explain the distribution of heavy metals in soil to some extent). Land uses should be planned on the basis of heavy metal pollution in soil, especially in urban and suburban regions. Heavily polluted soils have to be expected from food production. Further investigation should be done to determine whether and what kind of agricultural production could be established near urban centers
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