Resuscitating brownfield land has clear benefits.
It generates revenue and revitalises communities, by providing jobs, homes and green spaces while eliminating health and environmental risks related to contaminated soil and groundwater.
Yet, the European Commission estimates that over 1,000 km2 of undeveloped greenfield land is appropriated for housing, roads and industry every year. With more than three million brownfield sites across Europe, why are the opportunities they present being ignored?
For many, the simple answer is that it’s difficult. After all, brownfields are large-scale sites that require substantial clean-up efforts. In Eastern Europe, brownfield sites often house old industrial facilities with accumulated waste. Governments often remain liable for these sites despite privatisation. Drivers for remediation focus on reducing unacceptable health or environmental risks.
Meanwhile, site remediation takes considerable up-front investment with slow returns, and takes considerable planning as contamination variables range from polyaromatic hydrocarbons to heavy metals to solvents.
Yet, there are advantages. Many sites in Western Europe are already well connected, with roads and utilities in place. Many more are in desirable locations, near towns and cities, creating sales value. For example, the remediation and redevelopment of an old Spanish hydrocarbon storage facility, located in Malaga’s city centre, is transforming a blighted area into a desirable urban zone. While sites in Eastern Europe may lack similar prime locations, funding for clean-up is often available from the European Union (EU) and the World Bank, thus offsetting cost.
Ultimately, adopting a risk-based approach is crucial. While it is attractive to simply dig out contaminated materials, it’s a crude approach – not to mention expensive and disruptive. Instead, assessing the contamination, along with its pathways and receptors, creates an appropriate and cost-effective solution.
Impact assessments for the surrounding areas are also key. If heavy metals are present in the topsoil, creating an elevated risk of human contact, excavation may be required. If the contamination is buried, the likelihood of contact is lessened and so is the risk, as well as the workload.
It also helps to integrate remediation with redevelopment. Brownfields retooled for mixed-use developments will have different clean-up requirements for the commercial and residential elements. Developers, therefore, need to remediate to the right standard based on function and, hence, necessity.
Layouts may also 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.
Good for everyone
Land in Europe is a finite resource. While it’s true 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.