A brownfield is a property which was once was home to a viable commercial or industrial operation but, because there is no longer an adequate market demand for that operation, the property sits idle, partially because of possible environmental contamination, waiting for a new function.

It is estimated that there are 500,000 to one million brownfields nationwide, but this number is difficult to confirm and there is reason to believe that the number is higher. Contamination will vary with the nature and size of the commercial or industrial operation that once occupied the site. A large steel plant may have covered more than 200 acres and may have contaminated the soil and groundwater with heavy metals, the concentration of which will be greatest near to the source of contamination and will lessen as the distance from the source increases. A dry cleaning operation or a gas station may cover less acreage and may leave behind contamination in the form of solvents, as may be the case for the former operation, and gasoline and petroleum products for the latter.

In the United States, the federal-level brownfield initiative evolved in the mid-1990s with the removal of less severely contaminated sites from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) National Priority List (NPL), thus opening them up for redevelopment. The federal program has encouraged the development of state-level voluntary action (or voluntary cleanup) programs, with provisions including site-specific, risk-based cleanup standards, limitation of buyer and lender liability, and pilot funding for environmental investigations and remedial actions associated with soil, surface water , and groundwater contamination. Risk-based cleanup standards assure that the level of remediation is consistent with the proposed future use of the property.

Provisions for buyer and lender liability are important to protect the future owners from the excessive costs and other potential ramifications of environmental contamination that they did not cause. Pilot funding is provided by the federal and state governments as seed money to initiate and promote investigation and evaluation activities on otherwise inactive sites. The hope is that incentives will help to gather information that will remove some of the fears about site development and quicken the return of the property to productive use within the community.

In practice, brownfield development is very complex. Successful strategies for brownfield development are often site specific because site conditions and location, as well as the local and regional economic conditions, will dictate "what will work" and "what will not work" on a brownfield. Generally speaking, the most successful sites will be a mixed-use development inclusive of residential, retail, office/commercial and recreational space. In addition to concerns about environmental contamination, there are many factors that complicate brownfield development, the most important of which are (1) local and regional land use planning and real estate demands, (2) regional political climate, and (3) financing and the options for sharing financial risk

Liability with respect to brownfield generally occurs in three forms and all result in unexpected costs. The first occurs when the remediation efforts uncover more contamination than was originally estimated. This can result in considerable cost overruns in the site development phase of the project. The second form of liability arises when a nearby landowner or neighbor claims that they have been harmed by environmental contamination migrating from the property. The third form of liability occurs when future development on the property uncovers previously undetected environmental contamination. In Europe, postindustrial site development has the same complexity, but the approach and the role of the government is very different. It is difficult to generalize about Europe as a whole, but for instance, in the Czech Republic, there is a National Property Fund to which application can be made to obtain the monies required to remediate an old factory (such as a steel plant) that was previously owned and operated by the government.

Most of the discussion of brownfield development centers on urban brownfields: inner city properties, sometimes postindustrial sites, that have been idled because of changing economic conditions. Intelligent development of brownfields takes advantage of the existing infrastructure (transportation, water supply, wastewater removal, electricity lines, and gas conveyance lines), and minimizes the potential for future brownfields. A brownfield is created when there is no longer a need for the current use of the property and the property has suspected environmental contamination. If, in the redevelopment of the brownfield, one can preclude the occurrence of environmental contamination and design the building and infrastructure to have flexible use, then in the event of a change in the market demand, the property may more readily adapted for an alternate use, thereby preventing the site from becoming idled once again. Brownfield development also reduces the demand for greenfields, or undeveloped properties on the outskirts of the city, by reusing previously developed land.

In this way, urban brownfield development, sometimes referred to as infill development, can help control urban sprawl. The "Waterfront" development, in an urban neighborhood bordering the city of Pittsburgh, is a 200-plus-acre steel plant that has been converted into a mixed-use site including light industrial, entertainment, retail, and residential space. Within the Pittsburgh city limits, the largest remaining piece of undeveloped property was a slag pile. Currently under construction, Summerset at Frick Park will have more than seven hundred housing units when fully completed.



Bartsch, Charles; Deane, Rachel; and Dorfman, Bridget. (2001). "Brownfields: State of the States: An End-of-Session Review of the Initiatives and Program Impacts in the 50 States." Washington, DC: Northeast Midwest Institute. Also available from .

Deason, Jonathan P.; Sherk, George William; and Carroll, Gary A. (2001). "Final Report—Public Policies and Private Decisions Affecting the Redevelopment of Brownfields: An Analysis of Critical Factors, Relative Weights and Areal Differentials." Washington, DC: George Washington University. Also available from .

Internet Resource

The Brownfields Center at Carnegie Mellon. Available from .

Deborah Lange

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