GUEST POST: Is the World a Brownfield – and Can the Brownfield Approach Help?
This guest post was provided by Barry Hersh, Clinical Associate Professor, NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate whose new book is, “Urban Redevelopment: A North American Reader”, published by Routledge and featuring a forward from Charlie Bartsch (reviewed below).
If a brownfield is defined as a place where redevelopment is complicated by the presence of contamination, is the world–that is, is the entire planet Earth–a brownfield? There is contamination seemingly everywhere, from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of non-biodegradable plastics, to toxic e-waste dumps in Africa and China, and chemical build-up in intensely-produced agricultural regions. Even resorts that advertise their natural beauty and profit from their pristine environmental quality, such as Hawaii, suffer from substantial pollution. There’s even a Superfund site in the middle of Hawaii’s Pacific paradise. To protect its pristine environmental quality, on which so much of Hawaii’s future depends, the state recently banned certain types of sunscreen that were killing its coral reefs and aquatic habitats.
So, if the world’s furthest ocean reaches and island paradises are polluted, does the whole Earth qualify as a place where human activity is complicated by contamination in some form?
Of course, climate change is the most famous and contentious illustration of human pollution impacting the conditions on the Earth. If you agree with most scientists and believe that human activity has contributed to increases in greenhouse gases and global warming, with wide-ranging impacts on air quality, sea level, storm patterns/intensity, flood risk and more, then the entire Earth is no longer in a “natural” state–and might be called a brownfield on these airy grounds alone (nevermind for the moment the chemical pollution on the land and in the waters of the planet).
The whole idea of what places we consider pristine, natural or “wild” frontiers on the planet may also need rethinking. If you go whale-watching you might be surprised that the guides refer to some whales by name. Today’s whales are being tracked by implant, drone and global positioning systems that easily cover even the vast ocean expanses of the big blue Earth. Those who proclaim their unique understanding of local open spaces and want to control them, are today also surprised by the extensive, detailed knowledge of scientists, many with government agencies, using computerized eco-system tools, gathering data from satellites and many other sources to track ecological system changes including animals. These places that are natural, but also so well monitored and measured, does that measurement change these places so that they are no longer truly wilderness (known as the “Observer Effect” in quantum mechanics)?
There are also products, such as Fiji water, that are marketed as allegedly coming from the last clean place on Earth. Fiji water was justifying its extra dollar cost for each (Chinese plastic) bottle by saying that it was not from Cleveland, but stopped after the Ohio city, which has quite good water, complained.
The mentality of the last pure place or product, and those who have wealth should pay more and limit access to it, can be seen as the same attitude that leads to deforestation and hunting for rhinoceros horns to near extinction. Rather than raise the price for clean places and products until none is left, can’t we recycle land, water and air using the brownfields approach to restoring places that are dirty?
Rather than despair that many parts of Earth have been contaminated, we can take heart in the knowledge that we now have the know-how to clean up and recycle brownfields, even though contamination does indeed make their reuse more complicated. All over the U.S. and the world there are thousands of formerly contaminated properties that have been cleaned up and recycled back into productive use. In the United States, Brownfield programs have proven effective, returning $18 for every $1 of public investment, and earning consistent bipartisan support. While rarely if ever is every molecule of pollution removed, many formerly contaminated properties are now safely and productively reused, some restored to close to pristine condition. We can now recycle materials, from aluminum to zinc. There are huge, complex and highly effective water treatment systems – and we need more of all these efforts.
So, we are more capable to habitat the planet sustainably. And most of us certainly do want to preserve those places that are closer to their natural conditions. Though they may be monitored by mankind from here on forever, knowing more about them can help us protect and expand them, sometimes by ameliorating the effects of human impacts or other times by removing nearby contamination.
Recently the EPA has proposed expanding what has been called the Brownfields Approach to superfund and all other contaminated properties. Three key element of the Brownfields Approach are:
- to gain synergy between the remediation and the redevelopment.
- to broaden engagement to include future users and the community.
- to move more quickly using new, cost-effective technology.
The Brownfield Approach does not mean cutting corners or lowering standards for scientific assessment, alternative remedy selection or remediation. Brownfield cleanups typically recognize future uses and allocate resources to support improvement sooner rather than later. If cleaning an entire site will take time, then the Brownfield Approach calls for isolating particularly contaminated areas while proceeding on areas of the site that can be more readily reused, if such reuse also furthers the long term resolution of the site cleanup. Too often remediation efforts, whether for superfund sites or greenhouse gases, get bogged down allocating costs and responsibility or stagnated by lengthy investigation, negotiation and litigation. The success of the Brownfields Approach in the EPA Brownfields Program offers has shown that including the some short term tangible benefits in a site’s reuse and remediating scoped for that specific reuse, whether new buildings, historic rehabilitation, or restoring open space, often motivates a quicker resolution of the entire site.
Brownfield strategies are now quite numerous. “Brownfields by the Bunch,” for example, is a concept described in Urban Redevelopment: A North American Reader about getting more sites remediated and redeveloped by using portfolios (properties of the same type) or area-wide planning (properties near one another). Other financial strategies build non-traditional or even open sourced capital stacks, using the widest range of funding sources, not just government monies, but financing from corporations, funds, philanthropies and even the community itself. These techniques have helped accelerate the development of a growing number of brownfield success stories and can be more widely applied.
So, perhaps we should see the world as a brownfield. Reaching a high quality environment for all will be very complicated indeed, but we have the techniques and strategies to repair centuries of industrial damage. We can utilize all the tools of the Brownfields Approach to leverage modern technologies and focus on beneficial reuse to chip our way towards more productive use and, ultimately, more clean ups. Yet, even with higher and better approaches, it will still require the commitment of significant resources sustained over several generations to restore the largest of all brownfields, Mother Earth. The investment will be large and the work long, but for legions of brownfield professionals across the planet there is no higher calling.
Barry Hersh is a Clinical Associate Professor at the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate.
Professor Hersh’s new book, entitled “Urban Redevelopment: A North American Reader” is available now. It provides an excellent primer to the modern real estate redevelopment market in North America, which novices and experts will enjoy in equal measure. It also features a forward from brownfield legend Charlie Bartsch.
Pictured Above: Professor Hersh and Brownfield Listings CEO Dan French in Pittsburgh on the floor at Brownfields 2017.