Driving Sustainability: Creating Community-based Brownfield Redevelopment Properties and Government Work


Brownfields are property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may become lucid by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, popultant, or contaminant.  We need to establish and quantify the impacts of brownfields redevelopment in the areas of environmental, economic, community, and fiscal effects if we are going to add value to local government.  How?  First, we need to be clear on how we treat land resources consumed to accommodate new population.  In other words, sprawl that occurs when certain city area, for example New York, adds urbanized land at a much faster rate than they add population.

We need to understand that Brownfields sites also include, but are not limited to, two specific types of properties eligible for funding:  sites contaminated by petroleum or a petroleum product and sites contaminated by controlled substances.  And that there are three distinct strategies we can use to minimize the heat island effect found in urban centers.  Light colored roofing membrane and the green rood absorb less heat at the building.  Parking lots also assist in reducing the heat island effect.  With more than 65 percent of all new parking undercover and the top level of parking a reflective white surface, the remaining save in slowed to remaining native or otherwise vegetated.  Additionally, trees planted in the parking lot, shade the asphalt to minimize the health chain associated with urban activity.


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In 1998, 16,500 brownfield sites were reported in 126 major cities around the U.S. accumulating 47,000 acres of unused promise and potential.[i]  In 2011 in New Jersey we learned that the majority of people felt that they would be content living on a redeveloped brownfield site were those respondents who were relatively poor, young renters.  Redeveloping brownfields potentially benefits the environment, according to some.[ii]  But we must also remember that numbers showing pro-activeness in our cities are what count most.  Almost 50,000 cities have completed Voluntary Cleanup Programs (VCP) programs since the inception of VCP programs in the mid-1990s; In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even launched the Repowering America’s Land Initiative to encourage the development of renewable energy on potentially contaminated land. 

As part of this, EPA’s Office of Underground Storage Tanks (OUST)we saw a beginning to collaboration with the U.S Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to evaluate the feasibility of sitting alternative fuel stations at former gasoline station sites.  To me, cleaning up the land and protecting public health clearly are obvious and direct benefits of brownfields redevelopment.  Yes, there are disparities when we look at places like southeast Baltimore, inclusive of excess deaths from respiratory illness and cancers and a spatial and statistical relationship between environmentally-degraded brownfields area and at-risk communities.  However, an estimation of 6,000 to 7,000 sites annually, reflects vast progress.  It also represents a small portion of the need,   the community.

The majority or between 55 and 8- percent of brownfields projects involve public subsidy.  The EPA’S Brownfields Program has successfully leveraged 48,238 jobs and $11.3 billion in new investment as of March, 2008.  In 2007[iii] indication was that 150 cities had successfully redeveloped 1,578 brownfields sites.  Eight of the reporting cities also lifted permanent job impacts which totaled 115,600 jobs.  Density factors into virtually every impact factor, from economic or more jobs per acre to water quality impacts or reduced runoff,  and industry by preserving freed areas outside cities, restoring property for productive use and increasing property values,  increasing the local tax base, From the micro/project-specific perspective, public investments in brownfields are generally recouped from local taxes generated by the project within about five years, although tax credits may extend this period.   

We cannot ignore that over 100 cities estimated they would receive additional annual tax revenues in the range of $205 to $500 million if they could return their brownfields to economic use, as well as augment the job market with 236,000 new lines of work.[iv]   This shows that cities can make their land work.  From the macro perspective, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has found that redeveloped brownfields in 62 surveyed cities lead to $408 million in annual local ox revenue.  Furthermore, we find that redeveloping remaining brownfields can generate between $1.3 and $3.8 billion in local taxes,   improving the community image, mitigating public health and safety concerns, all the while using existing infrastructural streets.

Brownfields and greyfields usually have infrastructure in a place so there is a cost savings in building and maintaining infrastructure relative to alternative new or sprawl development.  The magnitude of this cost savings is uncertain.  Some[v] have placed the savings at as much as $1 per brownfields vs. $10 per greenfields.  The literature the past few years in the area of sprawl vs. new compact development suggests smaller increments, where the differential is 10 to 35 percent.  Future research may appease these findings in that there is likely a significantly greater infrastructure savings attributable to brownfields or greyfields relative to new compact development; examples being sewer system, lighting, resulting in cost savings, creating jobs.

In many communities, the trade-off is clear.  Growth will go somewhere, if it is not accommodated in the existing developed areas such as brownfields, infill, it will go to Greenfields sites.  Assumptions regarding how a particular project prototype will be developed on the ground can be of considerable importance for assessing financial feasibility.  We need to take the factors into account with each typology.  For example, Site Use Intensity, measured as floor area ration (FAR) with development including existing use FAR associated with occupied.  Understanding that we can have underutilized properties, as part of the City’s bill or, Next Site Coverage, measured as the proportion of the site for which is building footprint with the remainder of the site used for such purposes as parking or loading, landscaping, storage, remediation area, and or habitant or one space.  While Brownfields have been accused of driving up unemployment and fostering penury, Brownfields also take up valuable space within a city’s boundaries, and at the same time devalue the land, making other open land more attractive is a good thing for investors.  In terms of the effects on local and regional economies, the wasted spaces inside city areas are possible sources of tax revenue.  As they remain abandoned properties, that locality is forfeiting potential jobs and downtown revitalization.    Brownfields have been accused of being a curse on the neighborhoods, discouraging economic development and undermining local government tax bases.  They are common sites in neighborhoods filled with the less fortunate, and may play a role in causing neighborhood decline.  And even though the costs associated with redeveloping them are sometimes astounding due to contamination and regulated clean up, that is ultimately for the local government to decide when focusing in on wasteful land inside cities.

[i] U.S. Conference of Mayor, 1998.

[ii] the U.S. Conference of Mayors 2007 report, 82 responding cities estimated that redeveloping brownfields could accommodate 2.8 million households

[iii] U.S. Conference of Mayors.  2007

[iv] Cochran, 1998.

[v] US Environmental Protection Agency, 2005


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