A Case Study of Sustainable Development: Brownfields
Citation: 32 ELR 10420
By the 1980s, deteriorating hulks of abandoned factories and overgrown vacant lots in many American cities served as notable symbols of urban decline. These sites had earned the label of "brownfields," which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now defines as "abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination."1 A brownfield site can be as small as a corner lot or as large as an abandoned steel mill, though former industrial properties attract the most attention. According to one estimate there were as many as 500,000 such sites in the United States.2 The extent of contamination present at these sites after decades of industrial activity was unknown. In the meantime, businesses fled increasingly to suburban and exurban locations known as "greenfields," motivated in part by the widespread perception of these locations as "clean."
While the problem of urban blight and flight to suburban greenfields has many causes, it largely arose because of the unintended chilling effect of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA),3 and its state-law analogues, on brownfields redevelopment.4 Therefore, brownfields laws and policies typically aim directly at modifying those environmental laws thought to be most responsible for stifling urban development. The brownfields discussion is somewhat retrospective: it gives us an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and "avoid re-creating Brownfields and continuing their legacy."5 If that were the only important aspect of brownfields revitalization, the link to sustainable development would probably not be readily apparent. However, each decision to remediate and reuse brownfields triggers a much wider variety of concerns: documenting and eliminating environmental health risks while promoting reinvestment, creating jobs, slowing the acceleration of suburban "greenfields" development, decreasing polarization of communities, and fostering public involvement in every aspect of redevelopment efforts. Each brownfields site thus provides an excellent opportunity for us to discuss how to reverse decades of urban decay and to alleviate the unchecked, wasteful development in suburban America.6 These are central concerns in sustainable development policy, and the link between brownfields policies and sustainable development is therefore quite tangible. Not surprisingly, brownfields developers are often quick to call their projects core elements of urban sustainability efforts.