Improving Urban Sustainability: Brownfields and Green Gentrification

These methods of improving our urban spaces are not without their flaws

The High Line is an example of Green Gentrification which is an urban sustainability method with both benefits and drawbacks for a community

Among all of the significant array of methods that can be used to improve the nature of our urban spaces, also known as urban sustainability improvements, none are without their flaws. There are two issues which arise in the case of urban sustainability improvement, and those are the cleanup considerations when it comes to the redevelopment of brownfields, and the inequality introduced by Green Gentrification among the populace which live around it. Both of these problems threaten the overall goal of urban sustainability, but have respective solutions.

The first key issue that arises is in the redevelopment of brownfields, and it stems from the core reality of what a brownfield is: a contaminated land. A brownfield is a term used to define any plot of land which is unusable in its current state due to contamination. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA:

There are often motivations to develop brownfields into usable spaces, despite their hefty real estate challenges, and these motivations can include the removal of toxic substances in the brownfield to create a cleaner environment, and to convert the empty plot of land into something more useful, such that the people living near it can use. The motivation behind redeveloping a brownfield “works to bring new life to an area”, according to the EPA.

The motivations behind the redevelopment of brownfields can teach us that urban sustainability is a constant process that works to better both the residents of a city and the city itself: by redeveloping a brownfield, it is both benefiting the nearby residents as a previously empty and contaminated plot of land has been converted into something more useful to them, especially when it is a civic building such as a school or medical center, and it also benefits the city itself as the contamination in the brownfield is removed, which raises the land value of the area and makes nearby urban green spaces more valuable, and contributes toward environmental improvement initiatives as the contamination has been cleaned up, and thus the surrounding environment is now cleaner.

The transformation of a brownfield into a usable space sounds like an easy solution, a win-win for the urban space in which it resides. But brownfields are often contaminated due to previous structures which laid on the site, including gas stations and factories, which contained toxic materials that seeped into the ground, rendering the land unusable until it can be cleaned up. With this the primary issue of brownfield redevelopment arises: cleanup.

Brownfields take longer to develop than other sites due to the arduous cleanup process that is required; as such, the EPA states:

This delays the redevelopment process further and drives up financial costs of the project, which may even lead to a loss in funds due to “cleanup costs for a property…ultimately [being] more than the property’s value”, again according to the EPA. This usually occurs when the brownfield was not properly examined or the contamination level is extremely elevated. This threatens the overall goal of urban sustainability as it further delays the conversion of an empty, useless space into a useful space for the community which would make the land area more valuable.

One way this can be solved is by understanding the history of the brownfield and what formerly occupied the site, and how that could have contaminated the land; for example, if it was a gas station, areas beneath the former pumps are most likely the most contaminated. Extensive work can be done to analyze the entire land and ensure that all the contamination is removed the first time around, leaving none behind, and ensuring the brownfield is turned into a usable space which improves the urban sustainability of the area it resides in.

Brownfields lay empty due to previous contamination. Is redeveloping them worth the hurdles?

The second problem that emerges occurs during the development of Green Gentrified spaces, during a process called Green Gentrification or Environmental Gentrification. Also known as Environmental Gentrification, Green Gentrification is the process where a polluted or decrepit area is cleaned up and made more “green” with the introduction of plants and/or trees, and thus drives up both the health of the environment and the land value in that area.

According to John D. Gould, head of the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, and Clayton Lewis, head of the ECOT 7–7 Engineering Center in Boulder, Colorado:

Green Gentrification it is important due to the fact that it increases the conditions of the nearby environment, thus positively contributing toward environmental improvement initiatives. This process involves making a formerly dilapidated or abandoned area into a new green space, with the inclusion of new greenery, such as trees and plants. This is basically “the creation or restoration of an in situ environmental good”, according to Gould and Lewis, and it positively impacts the environment and decreases pollution in the area, which is undoubtedly a positive.

This may seem great on the surface, and it is, but Green Gentrification also comes with its drawbacks: it often greatly drives up property values in the area, which negatively affect those who live there, and attracts more wealthy outsiders to move in to the area. According to Gould and Lewis,

This effectively raises living costs to a point where poorer residents can no longer afford to live in the area affected by Green Gentrification, and must move to a lower-income area, in effect being replaced by wealthier residents who take their place, gentrifying the neighborhood.

Green Gentrification further pushes economic inequality and, according to Gould and Lewis, even “increase[s] racial and class inequality, and decrease[s] environmental justice”, which is definitely a negative. This threatens the overall goal of urban sustainability as it is making the neighborhoods which it affects less sustainable and less attainable to its original residents, encouraging urban inequity.

This problem can teach us that the majority of urban sustainability projects, like almost every major project, often positively affect one aspect of a city or group of people, but negatively affect another aspect or group of people at the same time, and it is nearly impossible for this to be avoided. Specifically in urban sustainability, this is usually the result of project costs — which are usually high — and effects to the neighborhoods it occurs in, as these projects often drive up property values, hurting lower-income residents.

However, creative solutions can be taken including generating more environmental goods so as to ‘balance out’ the inequality, in a sense; this can include expanding the “focus on the distribution of environmental hazards to include demands for more equitable distribution of environmental amenities”, again according to Gould and Lewis. However, based on the history of Green Gentrification and its impacts, it appears to almost always significantly drive up the cost of living in the neighborhoods it affects, making inequality in these areas, unfortunately, inevitable.

One viable solution to this problem could be to build self-sustainable buildings, but cost is the primary issue.

One effective method to ensure the sustainability of our urban spaces is to literally make the buildings that occupy the urban space self-sustainable. This sounds self-explanatory, but it is actually more complicated than it seems. Green Buildings refer to buildings which are built to be both self-sustainable and resource-efficient. This can be done by the building monitoring and regulating certain factors such as its water and electricity usage, and carbon output. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment:

Throughout the world at this time there are numerous initiatives to design future buildings and redesign current buildings to be self sustainable and Green. This in turn will lower those buildings’ pollution output, create new green spaces, and positively contribute toward environmental improvement initiatives, as the environment will be cleaner.

However, the primary drawback with these buildings is their sheer cost, from planning to constructing to overall execution. It would be economically impractical to build every building as self-sustainable, which to ensure a completely sustainable urban environment would be required.

Green Buildings and the redesign initiatives can teach us that urban sustainability is a constant and worldwide process, with the fight to turn our buildings green continuing well into the future. Additionally, it shows us that cities do have the capability to positively impact the environment, but only through ambitious and large-scale initiatives such as these.

In fine, with urban sustainability comes a multitude of improvement methods, but despite these methods improving the areas around them, they don’t always improve the society around them. While Green Buildings and the redesign initiatives are a step forward, the other two methods may come with more drawbacks than benefits.

In the case of the redevelopment of brownfields, these may benefit the area around them when the development is concluded, but this process is often long and arduous, and drains developers of both time and finances. In the case of the Green Gentrification, these improve the area by making it less polluted and more valuable, but also raises prices in the area and forces residents who can no longer afford to live there out, and wealthy newcomers in.

These aspects effectively threaten the overall goal of urban sustainability, which is for urban spaces to take care of the needs of the present, while also preserving enough resources to take care of the needs of the future. A method which provides unmatched benefits while eliminating these drawbacks is required to ensure sustainability, but unfortunately, this may never become a reality.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

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Chris K

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me here and on Twitter for more articles!