Reversing Urban Decay: Brownfield Redevelopment and Environmental Health. (Guest Editorial)

By Greenberg, Michael R. | Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Reversing Urban Decay: Brownfield Redevelopment and Environmental Health. (Guest Editorial)


Greenberg, Michael R., Environmental Health Perspectives


While the United States government concentrates more of its political and financial resources on fighting terrorism, the continuing decay of older cities and industrial suburbs has fallen far down on the national political priority agenda. An exception is the redevelopment of so-called brownfields, which are abandoned, idled, or underutilized factories, railroad yards, bus stations, garages, electricity-generating stations, and other commercial facilities. A modest national government program to identify, clean up, and redevelop brownfields into job fields began during the administration of Bill Clinton and has continued into the George W. Bush administration (Powers et al. 2000; Simons 1998; Van Horn et al. 1999). The political reasons are apparent: Developing brownfields is a politically acceptable method of stimulating private enterprise, local government, and community groups into building new businesses, housing, and community facilities. Also, brownfields projects have a beginning and an end; the national government does not have an indefinite responsibility. In contrast, social assistance programs that grew during the 1960s and proliferated for more than three decades have been politically portrayed by some as give-away programs that build dependency with no ending. Whether this characterization of social programs is morally or empirically justified, the reality is that in today's political environment brownfields redevelopment is a politically acceptable way of helping distressed urban areas.

The national brownfields program has spawned state progeny. States such as Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania engage in friendly competition for the bragging rights to the most successful brownfields programs. Likewise, within each state, cities that were formerly known for drug-related homicides, car jackings, and burned-down buildings vie for attention as creators of taxable properties on former brownfields. In 1998, the U.S. Conference of Mayors declared brownfield redevelopment to be their highest priority for federal government support (U.S. Conference of Mayors 2000).

Public support appears to be strong because the U.S. public views brownfields redevelopment as a way to rebuild cities and reduce sprawl. For example, a November 2000 survey of 779 New Jersey residents found that 44% considered sprawl a "big" problem, and another 26% considered it a problem. More than one-half of these respondents believed that brownfields redevelopment is a viable solution for urban redevelopment and as a device to control sprawl. Furthermore, 14% of these respondents said that they were planning to move during the next 5 years and would be willing to live on a cleaned up brownfield site. Notably, most of these people were looking for small houses and bigger apartments, and without brown fields redevelopment they will move to suburbs to find them, which will further sprawl (Greenberg et al. 2001).

Even the normally skeptical mass media have supported brownfields redevelopment. A review of 160 newspaper articles in cities from Boston, Massachusetts, to San Francisco, California, and from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to New Orleans, Louisiana, showed that reporters consider brownfields programs a major improvement over the Superfund program, which they portray as having scared investors away from urban redevelopment (Greenberg and Lowrie 1999).

Health scientists who engage in brownfield redevelopment face three challenges. The first is time and financial pressure. For every brownfields site that is on 10 or more acres, is well located with respect to transportation and other infrastructure, and will host a redevelopment of [greater than or equal to] $100 million, there will be 20 or more that will be on less than 3-acre sites located in an unfavorable location that has little obvious appeal to private investors. Federal and state governments will have to induce private and local government investments by providing tax breaks and starter money, including some subsidy of pollution cleanup costs.

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Reversing Urban Decay: Brownfield Redevelopment and Environmental Health. (Guest Editorial)
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