BROWNFIELD DEVELOPMENT VS. URBAN SPRAWL

brownfieldBrownfield Development is the restoration of abandoned, underutilized and often polluted land. It’s a messy business. Some of the land contains large, sprawling, poorly maintained and gutted buildings. Often the costs of dismantling the existing structures outweigh the cost of building in new, suburban ‘greenfield’ locations. Many brownfield sites are abandoned because it would cost more to clean them up than they would command in the market, so they’re just written off and left vacant. Many are polluted, with the underlying soil contaminated by industrial development from another era, hugely expensive to remediate. Often, the sites are owned by numbered companies that are bankrupt or wound up, and subject to liens for back taxes and other unpaid debts that a new owner would have to deal with.

The paradox is that, while these centrally located sites sit neglected and unused, urban sprawl consumes more and more agricultural land, parkland and green space, and brings with it traffic congestion, highway construction and pollution as cars navigate long distances past these very brownfield sites to the centres of commerce.

A recent study of Toronto’s brownfield sites concluded that by redeveloping them properly, Toronto could add a million people and the businesses and stores to employ and serve them, without the need to touch any of the Oak Ridges Moraine lands and the adjacent greenbelt around the city for at least a generation. And one councillor says that 40% of Buffalo’s downtown area is brownfields. Ironically, a new New York State law designed to force cleanup of brownfields will actually have the opposite effect in upstate New York, since in those areas, unlike The Big Apple, the cost of cleanup exceeds the price of the raw, clean land.

The answer, which would require more courage and coordination from more levels of politicians than can reasonably be expected, would be to combine such mandatory cleanup laws with a moratorium on new development in adjacent suburbs until all brownfield sites have been reclaimed. We’ll have to wait for a Green Government before that will happen.

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7 Responses to BROWNFIELD DEVELOPMENT VS. URBAN SPRAWL

  1. paulapalooza says:

    I think that is one of my biggest complaints, something that I feel is so pressing it just cannot be ignored: brownfield. I also think that housing should be approached in the same way; there has to be a connection between the kinds of housing that’s available around abandoned industrial land and the fact that it is abandoned. That didn’t come out right, but maybe you know what I mean. Anyway, here I am sitting in my newly built suburbia, so who am I to say anyway?

  2. Jennifer says:

    Excellent post, Dave. Brownfields are a big problem here in Michigan. It’s sick how much land gets sucked up in a giant circle around Detroit, yet it wouldn’t be necessary at all if they’d just reuse land within the city. (It has gotten better since the state started so called “Renaissance Zones,” which offer tax breaks and clean-up assistance to specific geographic areas.)

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    p: Thanks. BTW, readers, paulapalooza is my hero and inspiration, converting her blog into a paeon to fitness and diet — if you haven’t read her blog lately, check it out.Jennifer: I’d like to know more about Renaissance Zones, if you’d consider blogging about it on Synaesthesia. And don’t forget the leading zeroes in your blog address when you post comments — the address you posted above doesn’t work, s/b http://blogs.salon.com/0002721/ (another great new Salon blog).

  4. O RLY YA RLY says:

    I think this has to do with the American history of spaciousness. In my crowded country you don’t find these abandoned places. Every bit of space is used as efficiently as possible. We have even invented a word called ‘inbreiden’. It is the opposite of ‘uitbreiden’, expanding – so in English that would be something like ‘inpanding’. It’s creating new spaces for expansion inside the existing cities (or citycenters).Like us, Americans will have to start to realise that resources like space are not infinite. We are a bit ahead of you on that.

  5. Adrian says:

    Very interesting post…Here in Maryland, space isn’t so easy to find, and that fact seems to have had some impact. There’s an enormous push for development, combined with a lack of space to build on, plus comparatively strict controls.That infuriates developers, of course, but it seems to have spurred on some efforts to renovate and reclaim space that might otherwise be wasted.

  6. mrG says:

    Your point about the cost of cleaning the land perfectly describes nearby Owen Sound. This is the price of corporate and political greed that pocketed the proceeds from these land-rape deals, then vanished behind a mask of bankruptcy leaving generations to be told not to stray in there for fear of poisons.Recently, though, and I don’t quite understand why or how, but none other than Mr World Government himself, Maurice Strong. Strong came to town to say he planned to pay the cleanup costs and “live there himself” … but checking up on his background, that somehow doesn’t scan just right …Anyway, if Strong and his group can effect the cleanup, there’s maybe hope for the falling value of the remaining brownspace to hit a pricepoint of desireability.

  7. Doug Alder says:

    Dave I think at least some of this can be achieved by city councoils that are willing to “think outside the box”. We see cities and states/provinces offering huge tax relief structures to corporations to move there and create employment. Why not do the same for developers and the eventual tenants. What id cities were to say to developers – you purchasse he land , city work crews will raze the buildoings and haul it all off (a big cost), you the developer build anew and we we the city will forgo taxes on those structures for 10 years (or whatever) – Developers would probably leap at this. Retail/residential space in the resulting businesses would sell like crazy just for the limited tax free status and the development costs for the developer would be considerably less (yes I know this doesn’t address those sites that are chemically polluted).It’s not that a big monetary hit for the city. Yes they have to pay for demolition and disposal but their cost to do that is considerably less than the developers, especially if the city also controls the landfill. The city is already lost much of the tax base on that property so giving a tax break isn’t going to cost as much as some would assume. The payoff is a renewed urban center etc. which in the long rum will bring in greater tax revenue than without that renewal.

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