For cities across North America and around the world, brownfield sites pose a particular set of environmental and economic problems.
While technically the term can apply to any undeveloped land in an urban setting, it is often used specifically to refer to land that was previously used for industrial purposes and which has been contaminated by decades of pollution.
In the post-industrial regions of countries like Canada and the United States, brownfield sites are often situated on otherwise immensely valuable land close to the newly desirable downtown cores of revitalized cities.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, train yards, ports, and factories were often clustered close to where low-skilled labourers lived in downtown slums. But with the rise of the automobile and the expansion of the suburbs, it was no longer necessary or desirable for heavy industrial processes to take place in the heart of the city, and many companies closed down their operations and moved to cheaper locations elsewhere.
The land they left behind, however, often contained alarming levels of heavy metals and other forms of hazardous waste. In order to make these sites safe for building or other forms of development, they must undergo intensive soil remediation processes that often require specialized approaches.
Every brownfield site is different, and the challenges of remediation depend on the nature of the industry that used it and the particular kind of contamination.
In many cases, creative solutions involving intensive use of chemical remediation processes to clean the soil and filter out toxins have offered the most promising returns — for example, the largest chemical solvent supplier in Canada has played a major role in helping cities and municipalities in that country clean up after major brownfield sites left over from gasworks, mines, and radioactive waste left over from radium and uranium processing plants.
While incredibly effective and comparatively cheap, these chemical solutions do still require serious political will to implement, and to this day much valuable land still lies fallow due to concerns about the costs involved in making brownfield sites fit for habitation again.
The truth, however, is that brownfield remediation is always in the long-term best interests of local governments. This is not only because brownfield sites that are left unremediated can pose threats to public health — brownfield land that is responsibly cleaned can then developed into revenue-generating projects.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the regenerative power of brownfield remediation is the Queen’s Quay West project in Toronto, Canada’s largest city and a municipality whose industrial past had left large sections of waterfront uninhabitable.
With significant government and private sector investment, and the application of innovative new remediation techniques, the project has transformed Toronto’s waterfront into one of the city’s main leisure destinations.
With so many high quality chemical tools available for transforming brownfield land into productive land, now is the perfect time for cities and municipalities to step up and create innovative plans for remediating their brownfield land once and for all.