Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Going Brown-field: Alternative Strategies to Greenfield development

The following is a paper I submitted for the EVDS 601 Interdisciplinary Seminar in the fall semester of my MEDes (master of design) program. I think it may be informative to those outside of the classroom, so I'm putting it out into the blog-o-sphere.


One of the indirect consequences of Alberta’s growing energy sector is an expanding population with increased spending capacity, many of who wish to upgrade their lifestyles with larger houses on larger pieces of land. Business too is seeking considerably larger plots of land in which to accommodate their growing companies. As in other parts of North America, as cities expand, much of this type of development takes place on the outskirts of metropolitan areas, where land is less expensive — on unused Greenfield space. Greenfield is defined by a piece of land that has never been developed before. The 21st century has seen an increase in Greenfield development with out-migration of the population from city core to outlying areas. (Benfield, 1999, Swickard, 2008). This land tends to be less expensive to develop in the short term, but more expensive in terms of long-term infrastructure costs. It is also associated with an increase demand on the car as the major form of transportation. It tends to be built to a lower density (eg. single detached home on an individual plot of land), with low numbers of inhabitants in relation to the relative size of the area itself. This is commonly referred to as sprawl (Lozano, 1990). The result of this out-migration is decreased Greenfield land that could otherwise remain as natural open space, an increase in non-renewable energy use (eg. more commuters using cars), and higher infrastructure service and maintenance costs for municipalities. In contrast, there is Brownfield space, which is defined by the City of Calgary as:

An abandoned, vacant, derelict or underutilized property where there is an active potential for redevelopment. Brownfield sites include parcels of all sizes from corner gas stations to large areas encompassing many properties (City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy, 2007).

The redevelopment of Brownfield sites that tend to be located in built up city centres or older parts of an urban area, are one solution in countering this trend of out-migration expansion into undeveloped land. Redeveloping this type of land could provide the space for new housing, public space, commercial facilities and much more. This form of urban regeneration recycles space. It often is a catalyst for community revitalization (Adams et al., 2009). There are many who advocate halting development on Greenfield land by promoting the redevelopment of Brownfield sites:

The two most significant sources of urban environmental degradation faced by government policy-makers today are the historical contamination from past industrial activities and the current consumption of irreplaceable Greenfield open space by suburban sprawl growth. Resolution of both environmental problems created by historical contamination and non-sustainable land use can be achieved by private sector redevelopment of Brownfields (Swickard, 2008).

Although I agree with this policy, there are limitations to the redevelopment of Brownfield sites. I will discuss both the need for Brownfield redevelopment as an alternative to Greenfield expansion, as a necessary step to creating more compact, energy and land efficient cities, as well as the limitations to this strategy, by referring to relevant research in the field. I will look into the Alberta context by examining the way Calgary is currently formulating a strategy for Brownfield redevelopment.

Sprawling cities – the environmental impact of urban spatial structure

There are a variety of negative effects that result from the expansion of cities into peripheral Greenfield areas. They include the loss of valuable un-touched land that could be used to promote biodiversity, recreational activities and maintain the quality of necessary resources like clean water (Anderson et al. 1996). In addition, the kind of low-density development that tends to be built on Greenfield land creates residences that are further away from core activities. This results in an over-dependence on car usage and the need to build costly roadways. This kind of development also increases the cost of other infrastructure (its set up and maintenance) by increasing the distances for which the necessities such as gas, water, sewage, and electricity must run.

According to Anderson (Anderson et al., 1996), urban sprawl is characterized by:

1. an outward expansion of the metropolitan boundary that separates urban from rural land uses;
2. a general decline in intensity of all forms of land uses, as measured by population and employment densities;
3. transport networks that provide high connectivity among points, even in peripheral parts of the city: and
4. the segregation of residential from other land uses, with the greater part of residences locating in the peripheral suburbs.
(Anderson et al. 1996)

This form of urban structure is costly and unsustainable. Sustainability (and sustainable development) was first defined in 1987 in a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development (often referred to as the Brundtland report) as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Gaines, Jager, 2009). In the case of unchecked expansion into Greenfield areas, this form of urban development is unsustainable, without thoughtful consideration of the future generation’s needs.

Since the end of World War II, the development of Greenfield areas have been heavily promoted by government regulation and planning policies globally, but particularly in North America where it developed hand in hand with the promotion of the automobile (Locano, 1990, Anderson et al. 1996). For the most part, policies have only promoted and not deterred this type of development, with the exception of the more recent trend in setting urban containment boundaries in, for example, Portland, Oregon (Adams et al., 2009) as well as a European-led interest in building more sustainable cities (Gaines and Jaeger, 2009).

The trend towards expanding urban form into the edges of cities has resulted in ten times faster suburban growth than in more central urban growth. In 1990, suburbs in the U.S. held nearly 60% of the metropolitan population compared to inner-city neighbourhoods (Benfield, 1999). Cities are not getting smaller, they are getting bigger and with that, an increased demand for space and infrastructure. Along with people seeking larger houses, businesses too are seeking this (perceived) less expensive land to build larger enterprises. An average grocery store in the suburbs takes up 60,000 sq ft. (Benfield, 1999). Inner-city land can no longer accommodate these needs and therefore Greenfield development becomes the only perceived option.

Because of its low-density land use, one of the more significant impacts of suburban sprawl is in its inability to offer affordable and efficient public transportation. These services become prohibitively expensive for a municipality to offer until a certain threshold of density is met. This leads to the less energy efficient over reliance on the car to get from residence to other key locations throughout the city (Lozano, 1990, Anderson et al., 1996). “Trends in urbanization have boosted demand (for driving). Growth on the outer perimeter of cities requires greater reliance of personal vehicles” (National Energy Board report, 2009) all of which results in a larger impact on the environment. It is important to note that an integrated approach to reducing environmental impact should be advocated:

…public-transit infrastructure projects will not, in themselves, achieve environmental ends ... They must be accompanied by an integrated approach to land-use and transport planning that restricts the use of cars and orients development to transit nodes (Anderson et al., 1996).

Urban structure (eg. urban sprawl) plays only one part in an increased use of energy with a detrimental effect on the environment. It is noted in the article by Anderson that much of the research completed in this area has major flaws. They include the inability to design a realistic simulation model that takes into account the myriad elements that go into urban form and therefore makes much of the research recommendations less valid. Trends in urban form cannot be addressed in isolation. Equally important factors to calculate into the equation are the land use policies and public attitudes toward the environment (Anderson et al., 1996).

The potential of Ecological Design to effect urban space

Ecological design is defined as any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes. It provides a coherent framework for redesigning our landscapes, buildings, cities, and systems of energy, water, food, manufacturing, and waste (Van Der Ryn and Cowan, 1995).

Van Der Ryn and Cowan explain the need for connecting culture and nature by integrating planning policies with knowledge about the natural ecosystem. Much can be learned from integrating the two. Bringing conservation and stewardship into the equation of urban structure, could assist in a movement away from Greenfield development. Ecological design considers the possible negative impacts of the built form and sees opportunities in redeveloping existing built form (a type of recycling). The environmental movement that gained strength in the 1960s has had some effect on contemporary urban designers who advocate ecological design principles. For example Peter Calthorpe and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk who took up the challenge of designing a town with the pedestrian at its center, not the car. Understanding more the importance of the land, they chose to build compactly (Van Der Ryn and Cowan, 1995).

The alternative to sprawl is simple and timely: neighbourhoods of housing, parks and schools placed within walking distance of shops, civic services, jobs and transit…it is a strategy which could preserve open space, support transit, reduce auto traffic, and create affordable neighbourhoods (Calthorpe, 1993 as cited in Winston, 2009).

The challenge for future ecological design will be to weave the many diverse insights from various disciplines (science and design for example) to create more sustainable urban structures. The emphasis will be on looking at nature (ecosystem) and culture (the built form for example) as not opposites, but elements that work in tandem to reinforce mutual benefits.

Alberta has a long history of pioneer thinking that includes attitudes about land. That is, the more the better. For some, there remains a negative attitude about densification and the right of the individual to live on their own personal plot of land. These attitudes need to be looked at if we want to truly change the way cities are developed. The market is a key variable in the success of any city design, so it is vital that their needs be considered (Garvin, 1996). There is still an opportunity to expand social awareness on issues such as sustainable design. (Mak, 2006) (for a comprehensive summary of key factors in the decision to redevelop Brownfield sites in some of Calgary’s inner-city neighbourhoods, see the matrix on page 32 of her thesis).

Without a stronger cultural antagonism to urban expansion, there will be little basis for the dialectic necessary to move from political interest to political will and commitment (Adams et al., 2009).

Go Brownfield not Greenfield

Just as public policies like the subsidization of the highway system in the 1950s and 60s, or the National Housing act in the 1930s that enabled those with lower incomes to afford a house in the suburbs, current policies could encourage a shift from the overuse of Greenfield development towards Brownfield redevelopment. It is important to remember that those responsible for designing cities do not do so in a vacuum. They must work with others, like public policy makers, to accomplish their goals (Garvin, 1996). Worldwide, there have been significant positive strides in policy and regulation towards the redevelopment of Brownfield sites:

…unacceptable conditions (left by abandoned Brownfield sites) have galvanized concerned lawmakers and regulators to action across the public and private sectors to encourage and assist in the remediation and revitalization of urban communities and to halt sprawl development on bordering pristine Greenfields (Swickard, 2008).

It is estimated that given the current growth of cities in the U.S., there are enough Brownfield sites to meet the space demand for housing and businesses. The problem is that it is still easier and less expensive for developers to build on outlying Greenfield land. Until that changes, the current trend in building on Greenfield sites will probably continue to go on unchecked (Swikard, 2008).

It is through effective land use that we can build a more sustainable city. Looking at examples of Brownfield usage for accommodating more sustainable housing, Winston points out the importance of land choice in making housing truly sustainable:

In terms of location, sustainable land-use planning is required, which entails a shift towards more housing being built within mixed-use developments. It also means resisting scattered settlements and a preference for Brownfield rather than Greenfield sites. Finally, sustainability demands that housing be built closer to good quality public transport and, ideally, employment. (Winston, 2009)

Another important benefit of redeveloping Brownfield sites includes the sustainable re-use of pre-existing infrastructure. It typically costs less than building completely new infrastructure (The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy, 2007).

Limitations of Brownfield Redevelopment – the Alberta Context

Currently there are significant limitations to the redevelopment of Brownfield sites:

Environmental laws assigning liability to site owners, operators and tenants, irrespective of their responsibility for the contamination at the site, create a substantial disincentive to investment by new parties in the reuse and redevelopment of (a Brownfield) site (Swickard, 2008).

In some parts of the world there have been amendments to the laws concerning Brownfield redevelopment that place the responsibility of clean up on those who cause the problem, not (innocent) future owners of the land. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case in all parts of Canada, where commitment to Brownfield redevelopment efforts is sporadic. On the positive side, in 2001 the federal government established the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) to, among other things, create recommendations in the area of Brownfield redevelopment. But despite the efforts of the federal government, responsibility for Brownfield regulation has been placed squarely on the shoulders of provincial and municipal governments. And in general, it has been found that there is an overall lack of coordination between all three levels of government around this issue (Adams et al., 2009).

A significant obstacle is in fully understanding the complex issues around Brownfield redevelopment. Adams proposes a three stage ‘policy maturity model’ to clarify issues concerning Brownfield redevelopment and in doing so, make it a more favourable option. The model is essentially concerned with the “…temporal stages through which what is initially conceived as a policy problem is re-conceptualized over time as a development opportunity.” (Adams et al., 2009).

It is important to look at the local Alberta context by reviewing The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy’s five key issues affecting Brownfield redevelopment in Alberta:
1. liability risk
2. uncertainty with regulatory approval processes
3. environmental site investigation and remediation costs
4. financing availability
5. public perception

Further to this, the document points out that:
The current legislation in Alberta with respect to liability, risk assessment and regulatory approval poses significant challenges to Brownfield redevelopment in Alberta municipalities. There are significant gaps in legislation and further coordination with provincial authorities is needed to shape the Brownfield Strategy… There is no Brownfields Act in Alberta Law. Provisions dealing with Brownfield or contaminated sites under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act are incomplete and evolving and there is a lack of clarity of municipal roles in that regard under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy report, 2007).

In addition to the lack of clarity from provincial mandate, and the disincentive of legal liability, there is the one-size-fits-all documentation and clean up process that can be too labour intensive and time consuming, especially at smaller scale sites. The vast majority of Brownfield sites fit into this category. Often this results in the time and emphasis being placed on the administration rather than on the clean up itself.

But despite these limitations, the findings of this research completed by The City of Calgary Environmental and Safety Management team (among others) still see the benefit in pursuing this strategy:

The oldest Brownfield sites are likely to be centrally located in established areas with existing built infrastructure and transit access. The redevelopment of these sites can reduce vehicle use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, and may improve air quality in the city. More Brownfield redevelopment means less Greenfield development, which reduces net environmental impacts and the city’s ecological footprint (The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy, 2007).

Future possibilities and the need for more research

There is a lot to be said about the benefits of taking on a new process for developing cities. The early adoption of new forms of technologies and sustainable planning strategies may put these developers in a more advantaged position, placing them as leaders in a new field:
Adams contends that speculative housebuilders who enthusiastically build up core competencies in Brownfield housing are likely to emerge as the market leaders of the future, while those who continue to rely on past practices and technologies will face an uncertain future as Greenfield development opportunities begin to reduce (Adams et al., 2009).

In terms of the Alberta context now could be an opportune time to pursue this strategy because of “the confluence of financial incentives, regulatory liability closure, and the possibility of increased taxes make it more advantageous than ever to look at Brownfields as an opportunity” (Meadows and Schube, Lexology website 2010).

But there are still a number of conflicting values when it comes to designing and building sustainable cities and they include:
1. the “growth management” conflict (between livability and economic growth) is due to competing views on the extent to which unmanaged development can provide high quality environments;
2. the “green cities” conflict (between livability and ecology) is due to differing views on the primacy of the natural environment over the built environment;
3. the “gentrification conflict” (between livability and equity) is a result of competing views on preserving poorer neighbourhoods for the present population versus redevelopment to attract middle and upper classes back to city centre.
(Godschalk, 2004 as cited in Winston, 2009)

More work is needed to help synthesize the information that comes out of these various camps and to proceed ahead with this strategy. Hula et al. point out the need for further study in the area of urban structure on energy use and environmental impact:

…our current level of understanding concerning the generation of urban emissions and the influence of urban form on them — is relatively weak. It is difficult to find consensus on even the most basic issues….the body of rigorous empirical work on urban form, energy and the environment is quite small (Hula et al., 1996).


Alberta’s growing energy sector has in-directly affected the way our cities are planned and built. With an expanding affluent population, there is a growing need for a place to house and service these people. Current development emphasizes the use of untouched Greenfield areas for their ease and short-term financial benefits. An alternative to this type of development is the re-use of current Brownfield sites, often situated in the established city core or built up urban areas. With the growing awareness of preserving the vital link between nature and culture, of maintaining a percentage of untouched areas, and the importance of re-using existing space, there is a need to build more compact, energy efficient cities that take into consideration sustainable land use, while leaving parts of the landscape in their most untouched form.

There are a number of negative impacts that building on Greenfield sites introduce, including an increase in the distances between vital activities (work and residence are often spread further apart), the increased use of energy through excessive reliance on the car, the increased cost of infrastructure to municipal governments to build out to the periphery (and at this low density), and the loss of wildlife and biodiversity caused by the use of natural land for a predominantly human need.

Brownfield sites offer an alternative to building in this way. They are often abandoned and unused, in the heart of other urban activities, and offer a more ideal location for sustainable housing, open public space and other amenities. Rather than using unused space far from the city centre and core activates, they offer an opportunity to revitalize a neighbourhood and to decrease energy use through increased density and compactness where for example, people can walk rather than drive. Benefits of reuse include the recycling of pre-existing infrastructure. There are some issues with remediation in terms of costs to municipal governments. But in some cases, the increase in property values due to the clean up will result in increased taxes going towards the government, helping to offset the cost of remediation.

It is important to note that there are a number of limitations to Brownfield redevelopment. It is more likely that a developer will view a Brownfield site as an opportunity rather than a threat by understanding the financial upfront costs, what is involved in an environmental remediation, how the land-use re-designation and planning permit process operates and the importance of social awareness to remediation (eg. the stigma attached to a contaminated site) (Mak, 2006).

Further research is required on the impact of urban form on the environment as well as the barriers to implementing Brownfield redevelopment. In order to move from the current trend in Greenfield development towards Brownfield redevelopment, there needs to be a public policy shift towards renovation rather than demolition (Winston, 2009). A shift in attitudes and beliefs are required concerning the importance of natural space — its vital connection with human culture, and the need to build cities more compactly with less reliance on expensive infrastructure and over dependence on the car. Keeping limitations in mind, Brownfield redevelopment is still a worthwhile strategy to pursue in offering an alternative way in which Alberta’s cities like Calgary are currently planned and designed.

Literature Cited

Adams, David, Christopher De Sousa and Steven Tiesdell. 2010. Brownfield Development:
A Comparison of North American and British Approaches. Urban Studies 47: 75 The online version of this article can be found at:

Anderson, William P., Pavlos S. Kanaroglou, and Eric J. Miller. 1996. Urban Form, Energy and the Environment: A Review of Issues, Evidence and Policy. Urban Studies Vol. 33 (1): 7-35.

Benfield, F. Kaid. 1999. Once There Were Greenfields. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy 14 no 3: 6-16.

Garvin, Alexander. 1996. A Realistic Approach to City and Suburban Planning and Ingredients of Success. In R.T. LeGates and F. Stout (eds.). The City Reader. Routeledge, New York, NY.

Hula, Richard C. and Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo. 2010. Cleaning Up the Mess: Redevelopment of Urban Brownfields. Economic Development Quarterly 24: 276-287 Online version of this article can be found at

Lozano, Eduardo. 2006. Density in Communities, or the Most Important Factor in Building Urbanity. In M. Larice and E. MacDonald (eds.). The Urban Design Reader. Routeledge, New York, NY.

Swickard, Timothy J. and Dongell Lawrence Finney LLP. 2008. Regulatory Incentives to Promote Private Sector Brownfield Remediation and Reuse. Soil & Sediment Contamination, 17:121–136. Taylor and Francis Group, Sacramento, CA.

Van Der Ryn, Sim and Stuart Cowan. 1995. An Introduction to Ecological Design. In R.T. LeGates and F. Stout (eds.). The City Reader. Routeledge, New York, NY.

Winston, Nessa. 2009. Urban Regeneration for Sustainable Development: The Role of Sustainable Housing? European Planning Studies 17: 12, 1781-1796

The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy, May 2007. The City of Calgary Environmental & Safety Management

National Energy Board –Energy Briefing Note. November 2009. Attitude and Behaviour Shaping Energy Use- energy demand. Calgary.

Mak, Carol Wye-Shune. 2006. An Implementable Brownfield Redevelopment Strategy for Older Industrial Communities in Calgary. A Master’s Degree Project, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta.

Gaines, Jeremy and Stefan Jager. 2009. A Manifesto for Sustainable Cities – think local, act global. Prestal Verlag, Munich, Germany.

Web sites:
Association of Corporate Council (ACC) Brownfields: opportunity is knocking in Alberta. 2010. [Online].… (accessed 2.12.10.).

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