Brownfield land

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Example of brownfield land at a disused gasworks site after excavation, with soil contamination from removed underground storage tanks.

In urban planning, brownfield land is any previously developed land that is not currently in use that may be potentially contaminated. The term is also used to describe land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes with known or suspected pollution including soil contamination due to hazardous waste.[1][2]



Environment and Climate Change Canada defines brownfields as "abandoned, idle or underutilized commercial or industrial properties [typically located in urban areas] where past actions have caused environmental contamination, but which still have potential for redevelopment or other economic opportunities."[3]

United States[edit]

The US EPA has defined brownfield not simply as a possible improvement site which has been previously improved, but one that may also have impediments, such as "the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant".[4] This comports well with an available general definition of the term, which scopes to "industrial or commercial property".[5]

The term brownfields first came into use on June 28, 1992, at a U.S. congressional field hearing hosted by the Northeast Midwest Congressional Coalition. Also in 1992, the first detailed policy analysis of the issue was convened by the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission. The United States Environmental Protection Agency selected Cuyahoga County as its first brownfield pilot project in September 1993.[6] The term applies more generally to previously used land or to sections of industrial or commercial facilities that are to be upgraded.[7]

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act (the “Brownfields Law”) which provides grants and tools to local governments for the assessment, cleanup, and revitalization of brownfields. The motivation for this act was the success of the EPA’s brownfields program, which it started in the 1990s in response to several court cases that caused lenders to redline contaminated property for fear of liability under the Superfund. As of September 2015, the EPA estimates that the Brownfields program has resulted in 56,442 acres of land readied for reuse.[8]

Mothballed brownfields are properties that the owners are not willing to transfer or put to productive reuse.[9][failed verification]

Brownfield status is a legal designation which places restrictions, conditions or incentives on redevelopment and use on the site.[citation needed]

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom, the term 'brownfield' has a colloquial meaning roughly equivalent to the American usage described above, i.e. vacant or derelict land or property, usually industrial in nature. In terms of British Town and Country Planning, however, the meaning of 'brownfield' is more complex, and is often conflated with the technical term 'previously developed land' (PDL). PDL was originally defined in planning policy for housing development in England and Wales, and was carefully distinguished in such policy from 'brownfield', which was undefined but considered to be different.[10]: 26  The definition from the 2012 National Planning Policy Guidance, which only applies to England, uses the terms 'brownfield' and 'previously developed land' interchangeably:[11]

"Land which is or was occupied by a permanent structure, including the curtilage of the developed land (although it should not be assumed that the whole of the curtilage should be developed) and any associated fixed surface infrastructure. This excludes:

  • land that is or has been occupied by agricultural or forestry buildings;
  • land that has been developed for minerals extraction (mining) or waste disposal by landfill purposes where provision for restoration has been made through development control procedures;
  • land in built-up areas such as private residential gardens, parks, recreation grounds and allotments; and
  • land that was previously developed but where the remains of the permanent structure or fixed surface structure have blended into the landscape in the process of time."

Locations and contaminants[edit]

Generally, brownfield sites exist in a city's or town's industrial section, on locations with abandoned factories or commercial buildings, or other previously polluting operations like steel mills, refineries or landfills.[12] Small brownfields also may be found in older residential neighborhoods, as for example dry cleaning establishments or gas stations produced high levels of subsurface contaminants.

Typical contaminants found on contaminated brownfield land include hydrocarbon spillages, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals such as lead (e.g., paints), tributyl tins, and asbestos.[12] Old maps may assist in identifying areas to be tested.

Brownfield status by country[edit]

The primary issue facing all nations involved in attracting and sustaining new uses to brownfield sites is globalization of industry.[citation needed] This directly affects brownfield reuse, such as limiting the effective economic life of the use on the revitalized sites.[citation needed]


Canada has an estimated 200,000 "contaminated sites" across the nation.[citation needed] As of 2016 Canada had about 23,078 federally contaminated sites, from abandoned mines, to airports, lighthouse stations, and military bases, which are classified into N 1,2,or 3, depending on a score of contamination, with 5,300 active contaminated sites, 2,300 suspected sites and 15,000 listed as closed because remediated or no action was necessary.[13]

The provincial governments have primary responsibility for brownfields.[citation needed] The provinces' legal mechanisms for managing risk are limited, as there are no tools such as "No Further Action" letters to give property owners finality and certainty in the cleanup and reuse process.[citation needed] Yet, Canada has cleaned up sites and attracted investment to contaminated lands such as the Moncton rail yards.[citation needed] A strip of the Texaco lands in Mississauga is slated to be part of the Waterfront Trail.[citation needed] However, Imperial Oil has no plans to sell the 75-acre (30 ha) property which has been vacant since the 1980s.

According to their 2014 report on federally contaminated sites, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that the "total liability for remediating Canada’s contaminated sites reported in the public accounts [was] $4.9 billion."[14]: 1  The report listed significant sites called the Big Five with a liability of $1.8 billion: Faro mine, Colomac Mine, Giant Mine, Cape Dyer-DEW line and Goose Bay Air Base. The Port Hope, Ontario site has a liability of $1 billion.[14] Port Hope has the largest volume of historic low-level radioactive wastes in Canada, resulting from "radium and uranium processing in Port Hope between 1933 and 1988 by the former Crown corporation Eldorado Nuclear Limited and its private sector predecessors.[15][16] By 2010 it was projected that it would cost well over a billion dollars for the soil remediation project, it was the largest such cleanup in Canadian history. The effort is projected to be complete in 2022.[17] In July 2015 the $86,847,474 contract "to relocate the historic low-level radioactive waste and marginally contaminated soils from an existing waste management facility on the shoreline of Lake Ontario to the new, state-of-the-art facility about a kilometre north of the current site." was undertaken.[15] There is also "$1.8 billion for general inventory sites" and "$200 million for other sites."[14]: 1  The same report claimed the inventory currently lists 24,990 contaminated sites."

The federal government exercises some control over environmental protection, the "provincial and territorial governments issue the bulk of legislation regarding contaminated sites."[14]: 4–5  Under the Shared-Responsibility Contaminated Sites Policy Framework (2005), the government may provide funding for the remediation of nonfederal sites, if the contamination is related to federal government activities or national security. See Natural Resources Canada (2012)


While Denmark lacks the large land base which creates the magnitude of brownfield issues facing countries such as Germany and the U.S., brownfield sites in areas critical to the local economies of Denmark’s cities require sophisticated solutions and careful interaction with affected communities. Examples include the cleanup and redevelopment of former and current ship building facilities along Copenhagen’s historic waterfront. Laws in Denmark require a higher degree of coordination of planning and reuse than is found in many other countries.


In France, brownfields are called "friches industrielles" and the Ministère de l'Écologie, du Développement Durable et de l'Énergie (MEDDE) maintains a database of polluted sites named BASOL, with "more than 4000 sites".[18] of about 300 000 to 400 000 potentially polluted sites total (around 100 000 ha),[19] in a historical inventory named BASIAS, maintained by the Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maitrise de l'Energie (ADEME).

Hong Kong[edit]

Developing brownfield land is considered by the public as one of the most popular ways to increase housing in Hong Kong.[20] The Liber Research Community has found 1,521 hectares of brownfield land in Hong Kong, and has found that almost 90% of existing uses of the land could easily be moved into multi-story buildings, freeing up land that could be used efficiently for housing.[21] In June 2021, Liber Research Community and Greenpeace East Asia collaborated and found a new total of 1,950 hectares of brownfield sites, 379 more hectares than the government was previously able to locate.[22]


Germany loses greenfields at a rate of about 1.2 square kilometres per day for settlement and transportation infrastructure. Each of the approximately 14,700 local municipalities is empowered to allocate lands for industrial and commercial use. Local control over reuse decisions of German brownfield sites ("Industriebrache") is a critical factor. Industrial sites tend to be remote due to zoning laws, and incur costly overhead for providing infrastructure such as utilities, disposal services and transportation.[citation needed] In 1989, a brownfield of the Ruhrgebiet became Emscher Park.[23]

United Kingdom[edit]

In the UK centuries of industrial use of lands which once formed the birthplace of the industrial revolution have left entire regions in a brownfield status. New legislation in the UK may provide a needed incentive for brownfield cleanup and redevelopment. Cleanup laws are centered on the premise that the remediation should be "fit for the purpose". In 2018, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) reported that the 17,656 sites (covering over 28,000 hectares of land) identified by local planning authorities at Brownfield Land Registers would provide enough land for a minimum of 1 million homes, which could rise to over 1.1 million once all registers are published. There is also brownfield capacity in areas in which the green belt is in danger, particularly in the Northwest, where local authorities have identified enough brownfield land to provide for 12 years of housing demand.[24]

United States[edit]

United States estimates suggest there are over 500,000 brownfield sites contaminated at levels below the Superfund caliber (the most contaminated) in the country.[citation needed] While historic land use patterns created contaminated sites, the Superfund law has been criticized as creating the brownfield phenomenon where investment moves to greenfields for new development due to severe, no-fault liability schemes and other disincentives.[citation needed] The Clinton-Gore administration and US EPA launched a series of brownfield policies and programs in 1993 to tackle this problem.[citation needed]


Valuation and financing[edit]

Acquisition, adaptive re-use, and disposal of a brownfield site requires advanced and specialized appraisal analysis techniques. For example, the highest and best use of the brownfield site may be affected by the contamination, both before and after remediation. Additionally, the value should take into account residual stigma and potential for third-party liability. Normal appraisal techniques frequently fail, and appraisers must rely on more advanced techniques, such as contingent valuation, case studies, or statistical analyses.[25][failed verification] A 2011 University of Delaware study has suggested a 17.5:1 return on dollars invested on brownfield redevelopment.[26] A 2014 study of EPA brownfield cleanup grants from 2002 through 2008 found an average benefit value of almost $4 million per brownfield site (with a median of $2,117,982).[27] To expedite the cleanup of brownfield sites in the US, some environmental firms have teamed up with insurance companies to underwrite the cleanup and provide a guaranteed cleanup cost to limit land developers' exposure to environmental remediation costs and pollution lawsuits. The environmental firm first performs an extensive investigation generally in the form of desk studies and potentially further intrusive investigation.[28]

Remediation strategies[edit]

Innovative remediation techniques used at distressed brownfields in recent years include in situ thermal remediation, bioremediation and in situ oxidation. Often, these strategies are used in conjunction with each other or with other remedial strategies such as soil vapor extraction. In this process, vapor from the soil phase is extracted from soils and treated, which has the effect of removing contaminants from the soils and groundwater beneath a site. Binders can be added to contaminated soil to prevent chemical leaching.[29] Some brownfields with heavy metal contamination have even been cleaned up through an innovative approach called phytoremediation, which uses deep-rooted plants to soak up metals in soils into the plant structure as the plant grows. After they reach maturity, the plants – which now contain the heavy metal contaminants in their tissues – are removed and disposed of as hazardous waste.[citation needed]

Research is under way to see if some brownfields can be used to grow crops, specifically for the production of biofuels.[30] Michigan State University, in collaboration with DaimlerChrysler and NextEnergy, has small plots of soybean, corn, canola, and switchgrass growing in a former industrial dump site in Oakland County, Michigan. The intent is to see if the plants can serve two purposes simultaneously: assist with phytoremediation, and contribute to the economical production of biodiesel and/or ethanol fuel.[citation needed]

The regeneration of brownfields in the United Kingdom and in other European countries has gained prominence due to greenfield land restrictions as well as their potential to promote the urban renaissance.[7] Development of brownfield sites also presents an opportunity to reduce the environmental impact on communities, and considerable assessments need to take place in order to evaluate the size of this opportunity.[31]


Many contaminated brownfield sites sit unused for decades because the cost of cleaning them to safe standards is more than the land would be worth after redevelopment, in the process becoming involuntary parks as they grow over. However, redevelopment has become more common in the first decade of the 21st century, as developable land has become less available in highly populated areas, and brownfields contribute to environmental stigma which can delay redevelopment.[32] Also, the methods of studying contaminated land have become more sophisticated and costly.[citation needed]

Some states and localities have spent considerable money assessing the contamination on local brownfield sites, to quantify the cleanup costs in an effort to move the redevelopment process forward. Therefore, federal and state programs have been developed to help developers interested in cleaning up brownfield sites and restoring them to practical uses.[citation needed]

In the process of cleaning contaminated brownfield sites, previously unknown underground storage tanks, buried drums or buried railroad tank cars containing wastes are sometimes encountered. Unexpected circumstances increase the cost for study and clean-up. As a result, the cleanup work may be delayed or stopped entirely. To avoid unexpected contamination and increased costs, many developers insist that a site be thoroughly investigated (via a Phase II Site Investigation or Remedial Investigation) prior to commencing remedial cleanup activities.[citation needed]

Post-redevelopment uses[edit]

Brownfield relic serves as monument in a new park in Atlantic Station area of Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Brownfield residential development in New Jersey
Pedestrians walking along hillside path in Seonyudo Park

Commercial and residential[edit]

As of 2006 the Atlantic Station project in Atlanta, was the largest brownfield redevelopment in the United States.[33] Dayton, like many other cities in the region, is developing Tech Town in order to attract technology-based firms to Dayton and revitalize the downtown area.[citation needed] In Homestead, Pennsylvania, the site once occupied by Carnegie Steel has been converted into a successful commercial center, The Waterfront.[citation needed]

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has successfully converted[when?] numerous former steel mill sites into high-end residential, shopping, and offices. Examples of brownfield redevelopment in Pittsburgh include:


United States[edit]

In the United States, Brownfield regulation and development is largely governed by state environmental agencies in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1995, the EPA launched the Brownfields Program, which was expanded in 2002 with the Brownfields Law.[27] The EPA, together with local and national government, can provide technical help and some funding for assessment and cleanup.[27] From 2002 through 2013, the EPA awarded nearly 1,000 grants for clean up, for a total of almost $190 million. It can also provide tax incentives for cleanup that is not paid for outright; specifically, cleanup costs are fully tax-deductible in the year they are incurred.[34] Many of the most important provisions on liability relief are contained in state codes that can differ significantly from state to state.[35]

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom, regulation of contaminated land comes from Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990; responsibility falls on local authorities to create a "contaminated land register". For sites with dubious past and present uses the Local Planning Authority may ask for a desktop study,[36] which is sometimes implemented as a condition in planning applications.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tang, Yu-Ting; Nathanail, C. Paul (2012). "Sticks and stones: the impact of the definitions of brownfield in policies on socio-economic sustainability". Sustainability. 4 (5): 840–862. doi:10.3390/ access
  2. ^ Alker, Sandra; Joy, Victoria; Roberts, Peter; Smith, Nathan (2000). "The Definition of Brownfield". Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. 43 (1): 49–69. doi:10.1080/09640560010766. S2CID 153395212.(subscription required)
  3. ^ "About contaminated sites". Federal Contaminated Sites Portal. Environment and Climate Change Canada. November 10, 2018. Archived from the original on November 10, 2018.
  4. ^ "Overview of EPA's Brownfields Program". Brownfields. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved February 3, 2019.
  5. ^ "Glossary of Brownfields Terms". Brownfields Center. Environmental Law Institute. Archived from the original (URL) on February 26, 2015. Retrieved February 25, 2015.
  6. ^ "Brownfields Program Achievements Linked to Early Success" (PDF). United States Environmental Protection Agency. October 2006. pp. 1–3. Retrieved April 10, 2012.
  7. ^ a b Maliene V, Wignall L, Malys N (2012). "Brownfield Regeneration: Waterfront Site Developments in Liverpool and Cologne". Journal of Environmental Engineering and Landscape Management. 20 (1): 5–16. doi:10.3846/16486897.2012.659030.
  8. ^ Thomas Voltaggio and John Adams. “Superfund: A Half Century of Progress.” EPA Alumni Association. March 2016.
  9. ^ "Brownfields Showcase Community Fact Sheet" (URL). Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved November 29, 2009.
  10. ^ Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing June 2000. 29pp, Department for Communities and Local Government, Crown Copyright ISBN 011 753976 7.
  11. ^ National Planning Policy Framework 2012, 65 pp, Department for Communities and Local Government, ISBN 9781409834137,
  12. ^ a b "Contaminated land -Overview". UK: Crown Copyright. November 10, 2016.
  13. ^ "Inventory of Sites-How many federal contaminated sites are there in Canada?". Federal Contaminated Sites Portal, Environment Canada. October 3, 2016. Archived from the original on April 19, 2017. Retrieved February 16, 2017.
  14. ^ a b c d Rod Story, Tolga Yalkin (April 10, 2014). "Federal Contaminated Sites Cost" (PDF). Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). Ottawa, Ontario. p. 41. Retrieved September 5, 2015.
  15. ^ a b "Contracts Awarded for Port Hope Area Initiative". Natural Resources Canada. Ottawa, Ontario. July 30, 2015. Retrieved September 5, 2015.
  16. ^ "Port Hope Area Initiative". Archived from the original on August 20, 2009. Retrieved January 13, 2009.
  17. ^ Carola Vyhnak (November 9, 2010). "Port Hope properties tested for radiation". Retrieved January 14, 2013.
  18. ^ "9. Combien y a-t-il de sites pollués ?". Ministère de l'Écologie, du Développement Durable et de l'Énergie (MEDDE). n.d.
  19. ^ "Les friches urbaines dans les SCoT et les PLU". ADEME. August 28, 2014.
  20. ^ "Brownfield site use and reclamation 'most popular' land supply options". South China Morning Post. September 2, 2018. Retrieved May 24, 2021.
  21. ^ "Government 'exaggerated constraints' in freeing up brownfield sites". South China Morning Post. December 20, 2018. Retrieved May 24, 2021.
  22. ^ "Hong Kong NGOs find enough unidentified brownfield sites to build 95,000 homes". South China Morning Post. June 10, 2021. Retrieved June 23, 2021.
  23. ^ "Emscher Park: From dereliction to scenic landscapes". Kopenhagen: Danish Architecture Centre. n.d.
  24. ^ "What are the barriers to brownfield development?".
  25. ^ "John A. Kilpatrick Resume" (PDF). Greenfield Advisors. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 11, 2011. Retrieved November 29, 2009. Article Author of "Valuation of Brownfields", Chapter 29 in Lexis-Nexis Matthew Bender's Brownfield Law and Practice, 2007.
  26. ^ Montgomery, Jeff (May 14, 2011). "Cleaning up contamination". The News Journal. New Castle, Delaware: Gannett. DelawareOnline. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved May 14, 2011. The first online page is archived; the page containing information related here is not in the archived version.
  27. ^ a b c Kriston Capps (July 29, 2014). "How Much Cleaning Up Brownfields Is Really Worth". The Atlantic Monthly.
  28. ^ Environmental, Oakshire. "Commercial development on contaminated land". Oakshire Environmental. Retrieved May 24, 2021.
  29. ^ "ASLA 2011 Professional Awards | The Steel Yard". Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  30. ^ University, Michigan State. "Brownfields may turn green with help from Michigan State research". MSUToday. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  31. ^ "Brownfield Sites". September 11, 2006. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  32. ^ Coming Back from Economic Despair. Henry Mayer and Micheal Greenburg. Economic Development Quarterly, August 2001
  33. ^ "Building a City Within the City of Atlanta". May 24, 2006. Retrieved June 16, 2014.
  34. ^ "Brownfields Tax Incentive" (URL). Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved November 29, 2009.
  35. ^ "Brownfields Overview Page". National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved November 29, 2009.
  36. ^ Environmental, Oakshire. "What is a Phase 1 Preliminary Risk Assessment?". Oakshire Environmental. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
  37. ^ "Desktop Study Reports - London, Bristol & Exeter". Southwest Environmental Limited. n.d. Retrieved June 16, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]