Environment, Sustainability

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has recorded approximately 14,000 brownfield sites (former industrial use), yet we continue to see new development on greenfield sites (not previously developed). Why are the opportunities that these brownfield sites present being overlooked?


There are several factors which make brownfield redevelopment challenging.

  • Developers want to manage problems associated with a site’s environmental history, which can involve costly upfront site investigations.
  • Private lenders may be reluctant to provide funding for potentially contaminated land.
  • A brownfield redevelopment programme may take longer than a typical development due to environmental assessment and remediation activities.
  • Developers in Northern Ireland may not have the confidence gained from greater experience by those in Great Britain.


The benefits of redeveloping Northern Ireland’s brownfield sites are clear. Many are in desirable locations, near towns and cities, and are already well connected, with roads and utilities in place. The sites have already been developed, which reduces urban sprawl, and unsightly areas get regenerated, improving the urban environment. Redevelopment attracts inward investment and revitalises communities by providing jobs, homes, leisure facilities and public spaces. Redevelopment also eliminates health and environmental risks related to the sites’ industrial past. Belfast’s Titanic Quarter is a great example of a successful brownfield regeneration project. The 185-acre former industrial site (where the RMS Titanic was designed and built) is now a thriving and bustling residential, commercial and tourist destination.

Supporting development

In Northern Ireland, the majority of contaminated land is dealt with under the Planning regime. The NI Regional Development Strategy to 2035, ‘Building a Better Future’, published in 2015, has a target of building 60 percent of new homes within the existing urban footprint. This is an opportunity for the development of brownfield sites in Northern Ireland. In conjunction with the planning reform, it is anticipated that a greater number of residential developments on brownfield sites will successfully pass through the planning system. However, as the years have passed, there is no strong evidence that this has been capitalised on. Regardless, positive changes and strategies are in place.

  1. Assessing risks: Adopting a risk-based approach is crucial for brownfield redevelopment in order to pass through the planning system. Local Councils will require (as a minimum) a preliminary risk assessment (PRA) and generic quantitative risk assessment (GQRA). However, a misconception is that all brownfield sites require remediation. Only if risks are identified in these assessments will further analysis and/or remediation be required. Although in some cases remediation is inevitable due to environmental or health risks, based on AECOM’s previous project experience, the majority of brownfield sites in Northern Ireland have not required it and have passed through the planning process with only PRA and GQRA.
  2. Fit for purpose remediation: Northern Irish developers may shy away from brownfield redevelopment over the misconception that sites require a complete clean up to get back to their natural state. However, a fit for purpose strategy promotes the remediation of sites so that they are suitable for their intended use. As such, residential developments will require remediation to higher standards than commercial/industrial developments. This approach is supported by NIEA and local councils who will be consulted in the planning process. And most importantly, it saves time and money while still protecting human health and the environment.
  3. Integrate development design and remediation: Design layouts can be tweaked to accommodate more cost-effective and sustainable solutions. By placing an underground car park in a heavily contaminated area, excavation costs are spread across the remediation and construction phases. Factors such as the location of underlying soil also play a part in cost and carbon footprint reduction as soil under a new road need not meet the same criteria as that under a garden.

Brown is the new green

At a former industrial location close to Derry/Londonderry, AECOM is designing a remedial strategy to rejuvenate a five-hectare former landfill site. Having previously undertaken site investigation works to identify risks to human health and the environment, we are now using these findings to design a sustainable “fit for purpose” remedial solution for the derelict site. What is different about this site is that our client wants to convert the brownfield site into an open green space for recreational use by the local community rather than redevelop for residential or commercial/industrial use. This approach reduces the likely remediation costs as remediating to public open space standards is less stringent.

Good for everyone

Land in Northern Ireland is a finite resource. While it’s true that brownfields are challenging, they also present governments, developers and site owners with an opportunity to turn derelict and contaminated sites into cleaner, safer and more desirable places to live and work. In the end, the environmental, economic and social benefits are difficult to ignore.

Ross Caird

Originally published Nov 20, 2017

Author: Ross Caird