In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Brownfields

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews in the United States
  • International Policy and Regulation
  • Definitions, Inventories, and Portfolios
  • Liability and Insurance
  • Public Incentives and Private Development
  • Economic Outcomes
  • Environmental and Social Justice
  • Environmental Risk and Health
  • Sustainable Development
  • Sustainability Outcomes
  • Brownfields to Housing
  • Brownfields to Parks
  • Brownfields, Postindustrial Landscapes, and Ecology
  • Brownfields and Renewable Energy Production
  • Brownfield Website Resources

Geography Brownfields
Christopher De Sousa, Thierry Spiess
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0048


Brownfields are defined by the United States government as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant” (Environmental Protection Agency website). While they are most often associated with derelict industrial facilities, brownfields can include an array of other properties with a likelihood of contamination, such as landfills, vehicle repair shops, gas stations, and dry cleaners. Prior to the focus on brownfield redevelopment, the original emphasis was on the remediation of land contaminated by pollution disasters and industrial chemicals. While this perspective forced governments to better understand the risks posed by contaminants and develop procedures for effective cleanup, it discouraged private investment by developers and financiers because of the potential risks and costs associated with redevelopment. Industrialized cities were, therefore, left with extensive tracts of idle and stigmatized property, while developers chose to build and residents chose to live in suburban greenfields. The brownfield literature expanded rapidly in the early 1990s as researchers sought to better understand the issue, its scale, and the key barriers to redevelopment (e.g., site assessment and cleanup, legal liability, funding). As the ability to manage risks and costs improved, researchers started to focus on other potential end uses for these properties and shift the perception of these sites from hazardous liabilities to land resource opportunities. Brownfields research continues to expand internationally and focuses more on strategic ways to manage sites in a smart and sustainable manner.

General Overviews in the United States

The publications included in this section were catalytic, in that they brought widespread attention to the brownfield issue in the United States (international policy publications are outlined in International Policy and Regulation). Interestingly, much of this work was generated by policy-oriented nonprofits and supported with funding from federal agencies, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Commerce. Bartsch, et al. 1991; Bartsch, et al. 1996; and Pepper 1997, all published by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, targeted local economic development officials and identified the economic development and environmental cleanup opportunities associated with brownfield reuse, as well as the regulatory programs used to support these efforts and case studies of successful projects. Gilliland 1999, a report produced for the Council for Urban Economic Development (now the International Economic Development Council), provides a wealth of case studies of publicly funded projects in the United States, emphasizing the “art of the deal” and the measurable public benefits generated from such public-private partnerships. Simons 1998, a practice-oriented guide by Robert Simons from Cleveland State University published by the Urban Land Institute, targets public officials and developers, but also incorporates emerging scholarly research in the field. The comprehensive Rafson and Rafson 1999 aims to familiarize environmental regulators, realtors, developers, site owners, and other key practitioners responsible for tackling the issue. Heberle and Wernstedt 2006 provides a clear and comprehensive overview of the brownfield issue for those looking for a good primer. One of the most influential series of publications is produced by the United States Conference of Mayors, the official nonpartisan organization of cities with populations of thirty thousand or more. They began conducting research on brownfields in 1993 when a group of mayors led by Chicago mayor Richard Daley started working more closely with the US Environmental Protection Agency. This organization has since produced a series of regular reports outlining the status of the brownfield issue throughout the country in its National Report on Brownfields Redevelopment series and best practice case studies in its Recycling America’s Land series. The US EPA also produces a periodic review (Environmental Protection Agency 2017) of state brownfield programs to help practitioners and scholars keep up with the continuously evolving landscape of environmental, financial, and technical programs designed to promote cleanup and reuse.

  • Bartsch, Charles, Carol Andress, Deborah Cooney, and Jocelyn Seitzman. New Life for Old Buildings: Confronting Environmental and Economic Issues to Industrial Reuse. Washington, DC: Northeast-Midwest Institute, 1991.

    This book was one of the first to examine the environmental hazards associated with industrial property, as well as the legal and financial implications these issues pose to those engaged in their redevelopment.

  • Bartsch, Charles, Elizabeth Collaton, and Edith Pepper. Coming Clean for Economic Development: A Resource Book on Environmental Cleanup and Economic Development Opportunities. Washington, DC: Northeast-Midwest Institute, 1996.

    This highly cited report examines the environmental and regulatory frameworks in the United States governing brownfields, as well as State Voluntary Cleanup and Brownfields Programs. It consists of five major sections: Framing the Issue, Environmental Considerations, Financing Tools, Environmental Program Tools, and Success Stories.

  • Environmental Protection Agency. State Brownfields and Voluntary Response Programs 2017. F-560-17-212. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency, 2017.

    This report is part of a regularly updated series (e.g., 2013, 2014, 2017) and provides an overview of programs in every state, including a detailed description of financial and program elements.

  • Gilliland, Ed. Brownfield Redevelopment: Performance Evaluation. Washington, DC: Council for Urban Economic Development, 1999.

    This report features one of the largest collections of case studies of publicly supported brownfield projects in the United States and establishes benchmarks that can be applied to future brownfield projects. Chiefly written for practitioners, this guide focuses on the dynamics of property value evaluation, job creation, funding opportunities, and private-public sector interaction.

  • Heberle, Lauren, and Kris Wernstedt. “Understanding Brownfields Regeneration in the US.” Local Environment 11.5 (2006): 479–497.

    DOI: 10.1080/13549830600853064

    This is an excellent reference paper on brownfield regeneration in the United States that takes into account key social and economic challenges. It draws on a range of surveys carried out with public and private sector stakeholders and then outlines sustainable local development and community benefits.

  • Pepper, Edith M. Lessons from the Field: Unlocking Economic Potential with an Environmental Key. Washington, DC: Northeast-Midwest Institute, 1997.

    This review features an extensive collection of case studies of brownfield revitalization and cleanup projects in the United States. It begins with a synthesis of the common features from the group of cases, and then provides a more detailed review of each case with respect to regulatory policy, financing, community involvement, liability, and “lessons learned.”

  • Rafson, Harold, and Robert Rafson. Brownfields: Redeveloping Environmentally Distressed Properties. New York: McGraw Hill, 1999.

    This book is considered to be one of the most practical step-by-step manuals for redeveloping brownfields. It focuses on the legal, technical, and financial aspects of this undertaking in order to remove the common barriers to brownfield redevelopment, and is considered a must-have for environmental regulators, realtors, developers, and site owners.

  • Simons, Robert. Turning Brownfields into Greenbacks: Developing and Financing Environmentally Contaminated Urban Real Estate. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute, 1998.

    Aimed at public officials and developers, this practice-oriented guide provides numerous tools and techniques for turning brownfields into profitable real estate investments. Case studies from the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand illustrate how to maneuver through state and national regulations, reduce liability, secure financing, and manage site remediation.

  • United States Conference of Mayors. Recycling America’s Land: A National Report on Brownfields Redevelopment. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Mayors, 1998–.

    This important series of annual brownfield reports updates readers on the status of the problem throughout the United States and its impact on communities. The study tracks local and state efforts to put these sites back into use. The studies typically include detailed information from over two hundred participating cities and in-depth interviews in order to identify key elements for successful brownfield redevelopment.

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