Recycling Building Sites: Brownfield Development


Tuesday we featured the lovely park at Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk which was rehabilitated from a former steel wastewater facility.  It is a stunning example of a successful ex-urban brownfield redevelopment project. How can we take inspiration from that park for urban re-building and re-development projects here in Chicago?

What is a Brownfield?

Per the EPA, a Brownfield is a parcel of land has been previously developed (usually for commercial or industrial use) and likely has contaminants which need to be remediated before it can be redeveloped.

Brownfields are sometimes former warehouse or industrial buildings on the edge of towns, or may be a former dry cleaner or gas station in the middle of an urban neighborhood.  If their potential contaminants aren’t remediated, it can be hard to find a new use for them once their initial business moves on.

The term was coined in the early nineties to address the growing problem with planning industrial site cleanup.  The EPA adopted it as a concept and began to build policy around it in 1993 with a pilot program in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.  That name should ring a bell from Randy Newman’s song “Burn On” about the Cuyahoga River which caught fire and burned – not once but several times over decades – due to its intense pollution.

Since that first pilot program many states and cities (including Chicago) have followed the federal example of cleaning up and rehabilitating Brownfield sites.  There are often tax incentives and grants available to help with the cleanup.  Chicago’s Brownfields Initiative was responsible for creating the Chicago Center for Green Technology on a formerly contaminated site (among other projects).

Brownfield vs Greenfield Development

It can also have a more casual definition as simply building on any site that has been previously developed rather than taking over open space (former farm land or park land, for instance) to develop.  The natural extension of this idea is to redevelop land in city centers rather than allowing sprawl to take suburban development to spread ever further out.

Certainly, moss supports the idea of keeping development in the city.

From a common sense perspective, it nearly always makes sense to build on existing but underused development rather than starting fresh on green land.  Transit options, roads, and utilities will already be in place.  Brownfield development can reenergize a neighborhood,  add to the local tax base and even add jobs.

Common Sense Development

Christopher Alexander discusses this idea in his seminal “Pattern Language” with pattern number 104 Site Repair.  “Buildings must always be built on those parts of the land which are in the worst condition, not the best.”  He discusses how difficult it can be for owners and planners to resist building on “the best piece of land” with the most lovely view, best soil, most even slope etc.  However, plopping a building down in the best spot can often ruin it.

In any city, buildings and whole neighborhoods change use over time.  Some can be reconfigured or remodeled to support new functions. In other cases, the function changes so dramatically that its hard to reuse that type of building again.  As industries change (or are outsourced), industrial areas are left with dilapidated, empty buildings.  But the sites may still be strongly linked to existing urban fabric.  Here in Chicago there are many such empty spaces, simply waiting for someone to come along and find a new use for them, to restore them to functional neighborhood uses.

We should save prime undeveloped areas for future enjoyment and concentrate our building efforts on retaining and reusing existing buildings, remodeling buildings whose function has shifted,  remediating and redeveloping brownfield sites.