From Eyesores to Eye Candy: Transforming Urban Brownfield Sites

Brownfields suffer from reputations that might be described as toxic. These urban landscapes, often abandoned industrial properties, come with environmental concerns and often, blight and crime. But with investment and imagination, they’re being transformed into desirable destinations for living, working and playing.

Restoring brownfields sites for the good of the community is an example of a new concept known as “placemaking.”

“Instead of the focus being on the environmental issues, it’s now more a focus on how can brownfields resources factor in to the bigger picture of community revitalization plans,” said Blase Leven, coordinator for the Kansas State University Technical Assistance to Brownfields (TAB) program.

Cities want to go beyond just covering up these eyesores, said Leven. Communities want to attract jobs, and new housing construction, retail stores and recreational amenities on brownfield sites can help lure new industries.

Because they’ve typically been neglected, brownfields can often be purchased for a song. Motivated economic development directors in cities big and small can qualify for various federal and state grants for assessment and cleanup. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation and Army Corps of Engineers are among the federal agencies that provide money to help incentivize private parties to acquire and improve these properties.

One rebound story is taking place in Springfield, Missouri. Old rail lines, constant flooding and abandoned industrial sites added up to a dead urban core. The city is using all four of the EPA’s major brownfields assistance programs, plus low interest loans and tax breaks for brownfields cleanup and construction, to achieve a new community vision.

City officials secured more than $7 million in EPA grants. That support was enough to take the mystery and fear out of these abandoned sites — and it inspired $460 million in private investment for Jordan Valley Park, which now houses a high-tech research facility that used to be an old grain mill and a microbrewery that was once a feed mill, a coal yard and a peanut butter factory.

Cleanup costs for brownfields sites can be significant, but on the upside, some building materials can be repurposed instead of heading to a landfill.

“A lot of demolition needs to happen, but deconstruction allows for use of some of those materials in a really cool and cost savings way,” says Leven. A grain elevator can be turned into a vertical garden, for example.

Help with restoration projects is available to communities who want it. The TAB experts at Kansas State, including planners, environmental engineers and economic development specialists, service four EPA regions encompassing 21 states. Other states can seek brownfields assistance from TAB experts at the New Jersey Institute of Technology or the Center for Creative Land Recycling.

While the EPA is a target for steep budget cuts in the new administration, EPA chief Scott Pruitt assured the United States Conference of Mayors on March 2 that funds for Superfund and brownfields programs are “essential.”

Nearly half a million brownfields sites still need attention across the United States. And that spells opportunity.



Marsha Walton is a science, technology and environment reporter and broadcast producer. She’s worked for the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the PBS conservation show “This American Land” and CNN’s Science and Technology Unit.