Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Urban Brownfields Redevelopment in Canada: The Role of Local Government

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Urban Brownfields Redevelopment in Canada: The Role of Local Government

Article excerpt


As in many U.S. and European cities, the legacy of a negligent past has left scars on Canada's urban landscapes in the form of numerous underused industrial and commercial brownfield sites. An article in Canada's popular Maclean's magazine once described these sites as 'the most visible sign of urban rot' in the country (Bergman and DeMont 2002, 21). While many of these sites are located in prime areas for urban revitalization, private sector stakeholders have often been reluctant to invest in them for fear that they may be contaminated, and thus too expensive, time-involving and risky to redevelop profitably. To overcome such negative perceptions, governments at all levels in the U.S. and Europe have implemented various policies and programs since the mid-1990s, imparting a general sense to the private sector that 'something is being done' (Bartsch et al. 2001; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2002; United States Conference of Mayors 2003). In Canada, however, there continues to be apprehension among stakeholders that such efforts are deficient, fragmented, and piecemeal at best (National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy 1998, 2003; De Sousa 2001).

Recently, brownfields have started receiving more attention in Canada. But the issues and relevant policies under consideration are typically federal or provincial in scope, as opposed to municipal where the bulk of redevelopment takes place. Ultimately, it is local government that is responsible for attracting, guiding, and managing most of the brownfields redevelopment activities throughout the country. Given the salient gaps in Canadian brownfields policy making and relevant research, the purpose of this paper is to start filling these gaps by an examination of brownfields problems in Canadian cities and the role that local governments should play in remedying these problems. Specifically, this paper seeks to answer four questions. First, what is the extent of the brownfields problem in Canadian cities? (1) Second, what barriers continue to inhibit the redevelopment of brownfields? Third, what role has local government played in managing and facilitating redevelopment activity in regulatory, financial, technical, and other relevant terms? Finally, what redevelopment outcomes and impacts are evident?

Answers to these questions are derived from survey data and on-site visits. These answers also contain implications for future research and planning, since they provide an initial empirical basis for assessing the scale of the brownfields problem in Canada, confronting the challenges it poses, and suggesting the most appropriate role for local governments to play in remedying the situation.

Brownfields Redevelopment

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1997) provides the most commonly accepted definition for the term brownfields as: 'abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination'. The term includes both known contaminated sites and those suspected of being contaminated because of previous land-use activities (waste disposal, manufacturing, fuel service stations, etc.). In the general scientific literature, brownfield is often used in alternation with contaminated lands, potentially contaminated sites, and derelict lands. However, brownfields is typically favored by those dealing with the issue in urban areas because it does not evoke the negative connotations associated with terms such as contaminated and it constitutes a semantic counterpart to greenfield, the term often used to refer to an agricultural or open space property in the urban periphery.

The brownfields problem is widespread among industrialized cities around the world, driven by the steady migration of industries out of central cities since the mid-1970s that have left behind vast tracts of vacant industrial lands. …

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