Ask not what brown can do for us…

Brownfields are always a hot topic of debate, and the debate has heated up even more so now that sweeping brownfield regulatory changes are imminent in provinces such as Ontario. We all know that brownfields are abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial properties where redevelopment has been complicated by environmental contamination. They include old and abandoned refineries, former railway yards, old waterfronts, crumbling warehouses, abandoned gas stations, former drycleaners and other commercial properties where toxic substances may have been used or stored. What shocked me was reading a statistic estimating that there are between 30,000 and 100,000 brownfield sites in Canada.

Brownfields are a complicated legacy of industrialization in Canada, and unquestionably there are multifaceted stakeholder issues associated with these sites. As an unfortunate result, many sites sit neglected or underutilized for years. Yet these brownfields represent not only a social, environmental and economic liability to those communities in which they are found, but also a covenant that needs to be upheld. This covenant is one that is implicitly made with a community when any piece of land is built upon, and says that a developer acknowledges how impactful a project is on a community, that this impact can reverberate for years into the future, even after its profitability for the owner has dissolved, and that responsibility must be taken for that impact.

Promoting the clean-up and redevelopment of brownfields has become a focus of all three levels of government in Canada, and has also become an important component of the movement toward sustainable development in Canada. Significant changes are happening that create hurdles but also opportunities, such as: legislative reform limiting environmental liability; planning reforms curbing urban sprawl and promoting urban intensification and sustainable growth; increasing availability of specialized environmental insurance products to manage risks; stricter corporate disclosure rules affecting corporate brownfield policies; the proliferation of municipalities offering incentives for brownfield redevelopment through the creation of Community Improvement Plans.

Even though Ontario’s new regulations do not officially go into effect until July 2011, many brownfield stakeholders such as buyers, financiers and insurers are already demanding compliance to the new standards. Change is already happening, and not a moment too soon, as illustrated in The Sustainable Cities Challenge in Canada study commissioned by Siemens Canada (and discussed in this issue), which indicates that a large part of the solution is using existing investments in infrastructure, facilities and services to increase urban intensification, of which brownfield redevelopment is a vital piece of the puzzle, as projects such as the Telus House Tower, MINI’s flagship dealership, and the soil recycling pilot facility in Toronto’s port lands (all covered in this issue) illustrate.

As Daniel Solomon said in his book Global City Blues, “In her grandmotherly wisdom, Jane Jacobs told us what we already knew: that life is far more complex than sun diagrams, and that real cities…are not made by simple little formulas.” The answers to brownfield regeneration won’t happen solely through the implementation of one all-encompassing regulation, but by tools and frameworks implemented by various organizations and levels of government to help developers and other stakeholders through the process of redevelopment.

Building welcomes your opinions. E-mail your comments to [email protected]

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