Brownfield Redevelopment

Greenfields, brownfields, greyfields... These all fall under the category of possible land used for building new construction. A lot of development has focused on greenfields, usually grassy, forested areas outside of cities. Unfortunately, this has resulted in leap-frog development and suburban sprawl. A new focus on growth within cities is now targeting previous industrial sites, in other words, brownfields. Brownfield remediation and redevelopment are a series of steps and processes to renew the land for future use. But how does it work? What are the benefits of this? Let's find out!

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Table of contents

    Brownfield Redevelopment Definition

    A brownfield site is an underutilised or abandoned area with the "potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant."1 This is because these sites may have previously hosted industrial factories, gas stations, or landfills. As a result, local soil, water, and even air quality are compromised and in need of cleaning or detoxing. The level of "clean-up" depends on the condition of the site and what it previously hosted. This clean-up is known as brownfield remediation. After remediation, brownfield redevelopment is then possible through the construction of new homes, parks, or businesses.

    Several countries have promoted brownfield remediation and redevelopment programs. Canada, the US, and the UK have all funded programs to redevelop brownfield sites. This is because these countries underwent rapid industrialisation during a time of little environmental protection. As economies move into deindustrialisation, local and federal governments must contend with abandoned, unused, and contaminated sites. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified over 450,000 brownfield sites in the US alone.1

    Deindustrialisation is the decline of manufacturing and industrial activity in an economy.

    Many high-income countries are undergoing deindustrialisation as they move into information and service-dominant economies.

    Urban Sustainability

    Due to historical land-use policies, locations within urban cores were zoned for industrial activity. With rising issues of housing affordability, suburban sprawl, and the negative environmental effects of car dependency, brownfield redevelopment has been promoted as a sustainable land use strategy. This is because the sites can be used for new housing, offices, or other use-sites, and can create new employment while, at the same time, cleaning up and re-using highly-desirable land.

    Brownfield Redevelopment old factory and overgrown grass StudySmarterFig. 1 - Former twine factory on the 3 Suisses logistics wasteland in Wasquehal, France; An example of a brownfield site

    Brownfield redevelopment is part of smart growth strategies to prevent suburban sprawl and leap-frog development.2 Leap-frog development occurs because developers are incentivised to purchase cheaper land outside of cities, leaving large distances between areas that influence mobility and promote car use.

    Smart growth is the urban and transit strategies that promote the concentration of growth in already dense, walkable city centres.

    Brownfield Redevelopment Process

    The brownfield redevelopment process varies by country, state, and project objective. Some sites are significantly more contaminated than others and require different levels of intervention. The EPA provides a comprehensive guide to brownfield redevelopment.

    Risk-Based Clean Up

    The remediation process depends on the future intended use of the land. The EPA refers to it as a risk-based clean-up. Risk-based clean-up takes into account specific populations (children, pregnant women, elderly, immuno-compromised) and the length of time they may spend on the land. For instance, brownfields planned for residential or green space redevelopment will require more time and resources to clean-up. Meanwhile, planned commercial and industrial development requires less time and resources.

    Environmental site assessments are necessary to understand previous and current site conditions and potential contaminants. Environmental site assessments include site visits, historical site research, interviews with property owners and locals in the area, and multiple local agency involvements. The process can take months to years of time and investment, which can deter some developers and stakeholders.

    Remediation Methods

    If an area is considered contaminated, a series of remediation methods may be necessary. Remediation methods vary by site and depend on present contamination.

    If soil is contaminated, excavation, capping, in-situ treatment or bioremediation may be performed. Excavation includes the removal of contaminants, and replacement with clean soil may be a solution. If contamination is deeper in the soil, capping can follow excavation by fitting a layer of geotextile or clean soil and preventing contamination from spreading.

    In more extreme cases of contamination, in-situ treatment or on-site treatment may be required. In-situ treatment can include the injection of chemicals into contaminated soil to break down toxic compounds. Bioremediation is the injection of microbes, nutrients, or oxygen to increase microbial growth, which can further break down contaminants. Phytoremediation is the use of plant roots for microbial growth.

    In some cases, the presence of lead and asbestos can be very challenging during remediation. The use of asbestos in construction materials was widespread until 1986.3 Exposure to asbestos has been linked to mesothelioma and lung cancer. Meanwhile, lead was a common ingredient in paint until 1979. Exposure to lead is especially concerning for children as it is linked to learning disorders and issues with memory. The removal and treatment of these chemicals require the coordination of several agencies and organisations and can take many years.

    In the US, the EPA has designated some projects in need of extensive remediation as Superfund sites. Superfund sites are brownfields that require extensive clean-up and remediation and can qualify for government assistance and expertise. The clean-up costs primarily fall on previous owners, however, in cases where owners can’t be found or can’t pay, the government has had to step in. Most of the funding came from a tax on polluting manufacturers (chemical companies) up until 1995 when the US Congress removed the tax, and taxpayers had to cover the cost. As a result, there is a massive decline in Superfund projects despite thousands of Superfund sites in need of remediation.

    Brownfield Redevelopment map of superfund sites in US StudySmarterFig. 2 - Superfund Sites in the US (2013); Red dots indicate high clean-up priority, yellow is proposed, and green means cleaned

    Benefits of Brownfield Redevelopment

    There are numerous benefits of brownfield remediation and redevelopment. Remediation through different clean-up methods reduces health risks linked to exposure to toxic contaminants. Although these projects should occur indiscriminately across the US, higher-income and visible areas are more likely to see brownfield redevelopment.

    See the explanation on Environmental Injustice to understand more about discrepancies in environmental conditions in the US.

    Brownfields tend to be connected to other existing infrastructure and may be strategically located in downtown areas. Redeveloping these areas for new use saves on costs, prevents the need to build on green spaces, and reduces the expansion of concrete surfaces.4 Additionally, because public transportation services may be readily available, there's a greater possibility for transit-oriented development, another major smart growth policy.

    Transit-oriented development is planning new construction close to or around public transit stops, usually using dense and mixed land use development methods.

    Redeveloped brownfield sites have the potential to become new homes, offices, and businesses. The location of these sites within downtown cores makes it an attractive option for job and housing growth by providing new purposes and increasing property values.4 Using mixed-use development methods in new construction also promotes walkability and decreases the need for private vehicle use.

    Brownfield Redevelopment Examples

    There are many cities in the US with designated industrial sites within their urban cores. As cities deindustrialised, these sites remain unused and abandoned. However, brownfield remediation and redevelopment options have brought new life to these areas and promoted smart growth policies.

    Denver, Colorado

    Denver, Colorado, is a rapidly growing mid-sized city in the US. Historically, Denver’s strategic location served as a major rail link to deliver goods across the US. It was the host of many manufacturing and industrial facilities, primarily around its downtown areas of Union Station and River North district (RiNo).

    Brownfield Redevelopment people walking by street art in Denver Colorado StudySmarterFig. 3 - Street Art in River North, Denver, Colorado; RiNo hosts many brownfield redevelopment projects

    The City of Denver has a brownfields program that assists local developers with site assistance and fund sourcing to clean-up and redevelop sites in Denver. Redeveloped sites usually include mixed-use development and even affordable housing options.5 For instance, the Denver Housing Authority redeveloped the Mariposa District, adding hundreds of new housing units while reserving some for low-income and elderly residents. The Mariposa District is one of many transit-oriented development projects in the city, with access to light rail and walkable designs.

    Another example is the Central Platte Campus project which was used to house the General Chemical manufacturing facilities. Since the late 1800s, these manufacturing facilities have polluted much of the local area, requiring extensive soil cleaning. Excavation, capping, and in-situ treatments were all used with ongoing groundwater monitoring. As a result of massive coordination between different Denver agencies, including Denver's Department of Transportation & Infrastructure and the City's Wastewater authority, new City buildings and functions operate from the Central Platte Campus. The project has won several awards for its environmental clean-up and land redevelopment.

    Brownfield Redevelopment - Key takeaways

    • Brownfield remediation and redevelopment is the clean-up, construction, or re-use of buildings for housing, parks, or businesses on sites of previous industrial use. The level of clean-up varies on the amount of present contamination and previous site purpose.
    • Brownfield remediation follows risk-based clean-up followed by different remediation methods depending on contamination and future use of the site.
    • Examples of remediation methods include excavation, capping, in-situ treatment, and asbestos and lead treatment.
    • Brownfield redevelopment is part of smart growth policies by reusing urban land and reducing sprawl development.

    References

    1. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Overview of EPA's Brownfields Program, Brownfields, 2022.
    2. Greenberg, M., Lowrie, K., Mayer, H., Miller, K. T., Solitare, L. 'Brownfield redevelopment as a smart growth option in the United States.' The Environmentalist. 21. 2001.
    3. Conrad, B. 'Asbestos & Lead Paint Considerations Asbestos & Lead Paint Considerations for Brownfields Redevelopment.' Kansas Brownfields Workshop. Presentation. 2011.
    4. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Brownfields Program Environmental and Economic Benefits, Brownfields, 2022.
    5. Denver The Mile High City, Brownfield Redevelopment, 2023.
    6. Fig. 1: Former twine factory on the 3 Suisses logistics wasteland in Wasquehal, France (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wasquehal_ficellerie_friche_3_suisses.jpg), by Velvet (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Velvet), licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en).
    7. Fig. 2: Superfund Sites in the US (2013) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Superfund_sites.svg), by skew-t (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Skew-t), licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en).
    8. Fig. 3: Street Art in River North, Denver (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RiNo_Street_Art_(32091990912).jpg), by Paul Sableman (https://www.flickr.com/people/53301297@N00), licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Brownfield Redevelopment

    What is brownfield redevelopment?

    Brownfield redevelopment is the construction or re-use of buildings for housing, parks, or businesses on sites of previous industrial use.

    What is a brownfield redevelopment project?

    A brownfield redevelopment project follows a series of processes to clean-up and construct new use on sites of previous industrial use. 

    How can brownfields be redeveloped?

    Brownfields can be redeveloped through construction or re-use of industrial site locations. 

    How are brownfields utilised in redevelopment?

    Brownfields are utilised in redevelopment after brownfield remediation or the clean-up of former industrial sites. 

    Why is brownfield redevelopment important? 

    Brownfield redevelopment is important in urban sustainability policies as a way of cleaning up contaminated sites and reusing them for new growth in cities. 

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