Brownfields And Climate Change

Posted: (last modified Mar 22, 2024 01:41 ) by

Abandoned Factory Brownfield Banner

Climate change is one of the most pressing global challenges we face today. Its impacts are far-reaching, affecting ecosystems, economies, and human well-being. While the causes of climate change are varied, addressing its consequences requires a multifaceted approach. In this blog post, we delve into the intersection between brownfields and climate change, exploring the role that these abandoned or underutilized industrial sites play in exacerbating climate change and how their remediation presents an opportunity for positive environmental and social change.

Understanding Brownfields

Brownfields refer to previously developed lands that are contaminated or perceived to be contaminated. These sites are typically abandoned industrial facilities, manufacturing plants, or commercial properties that are no longer in use due to environmental concerns.

Post-industrial brownfields encompass a range of abandoned sites, including factories, dry cleaning establishments, gas stations, and more. These locations often harbor a cocktail of contaminants, such as hydrocarbon spillages, solvents, pesticides, as well as heavy metals like lead, asbestos, and petroleum.

In Canada alone, there is an extensive inventory of approximately 200,000 “contaminated sites” dispersed throughout the country. By 2016, the federal government had identified around 23,078 contamination sites, encompassing a diverse range of locations, including abandoned mines, airports, lighthouse stations, and military bases. Among these sites, there were 5,300 actively contaminated areas, 2,300 sites suspected of contamination, and 15,000 listed as closed due to successful remediation or deemed unnecessary for further action.[1]

Brownfield in an abandoned warehouse district

Abandoned warehouse district

The Nexus Between Brownfields And Climate Change

Brownfields are often associated with high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Contaminated soil and groundwater release methane and other volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming.

Many brownfields are located in urban areas, and their vacant lots or abandoned structures contribute to what is known as the urban heat island effect. Without proper vegetation cover or green infrastructure, these areas absorb and radiate more heat, increasing ambient temperatures and energy consumption for cooling.

According to new research, major American cities experience scorching heat due to extensive concrete infrastructure and a scarcity of vegetation, resulting in temperature increases of up to approximately 9 degrees Fahrenheit (or 5 degrees Celsius) compared to the cooler surrounding rural areas.[2]

In fact, climate experts have sought to quantify the degree to which the “urban heat island” effect is amplified in expansive urban environments, thereby exacerbating the rising temperatures. The design and layout of these metropolitan areas play a significant role in intensifying the heat.

Brownfields, when left unremedied, deprive us of valuable opportunities for carbon sequestration. These lands, if revitalized and restored with suitable vegetation, can act as carbon sinks, helping to mitigate climate change by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Brownfield site impacted by petroleum contamination from leaking underground storage tanks at an old gas station

Petroleum contamination from leaking underground storage tanks at an old gas station

Remediation Strategies For Climate Resilience

Sustainable Redevelopment: Transforming brownfields into sustainable, climate-resilient developments can offer numerous benefits. By incorporating green infrastructure, renewable energy systems, and energy-efficient buildings, these sites can contribute to reducing GHG emissions and mitigating the urban heat island effect.

Carbon Offsetting: Remediation efforts can include reforestation, wetland restoration, and other carbon offsetting activities. These actions help to restore natural habitats, increase biodiversity, and enhance carbon sequestration potential, thereby mitigating climate change impacts.

Community Engagement and Environmental Justice: Addressing brownfields and their associated environmental issues should go hand in hand with community engagement. Ensuring that affected communities have a say in the revitalization process can lead to more equitable outcomes, where the benefits of remediation and climate resilience are shared by all.

Barriers to Remediation

One of the primary barriers to brownfield remediation is the high cost associated with cleanup and redevelopment. The contamination cleanup expenses, coupled with the uncertainties surrounding the potential return on investment, often deter private developers and investors from taking on these projects. Securing funding for remediation, infrastructure improvements, and redevelopment can be a significant challenge.

Brownfield remediation is subject to a complex web of laws, regulations, and permitting processes. Navigating through these legal frameworks can be time-consuming and costly. The presence of multiple stakeholders, such as government agencies, property owners, and community groups, adds to the complexity of the decision-making process.

Liability issues surrounding brownfield sites can create barriers to their redevelopment. Potential liability for environmental contamination and associated health risks can deter property owners and developers from taking on the responsibility. The fear of future lawsuits and the burden of cleanup costs can discourage investment in brownfield projects.

The engagement and involvement of local communities and stakeholders are crucial for successful brownfield remediation. However, community opposition, concerns about health risks, and mistrust in the remediation process can impede progress. Addressing community concerns, providing transparent information, and involving stakeholders in decision-making can help overcome these barriers.

Brownfield sites often present technical challenges due to the nature and extent of contamination. Developing effective and sustainable remediation strategies requires expertise in environmental engineering, soil and groundwater remediation, and risk assessment. Technical uncertainties and the need for innovative approaches can complicate the remediation process.

Abandoned asbestos manufacturing siteAbandoned asbestos manufacturing site

Success Stories

In spite of the aforementioned barriers, several successful remediation projects continue to inspire hope. Below, we list five of them:

Freshkills Park, New York City: Once the world’s largest landfill, Freshkills Park is now being transformed into a 2,200-acre green space.[3] This project showcases the potential of brownfield remediation in creating sustainable recreational areas while also enhancing climate resilience.

High Line Park, New York City: The High Line Park is a remarkable example of transforming a former elevated railway into a thriving urban green space.[4]

This brownfield redevelopment project has not only revitalized a disused industrial structure but also created a vibrant public park that attracts millions of visitors each year. The park incorporates sustainable design elements, including native plantings, stormwater management systems, and energy-efficient lighting, contributing to climate resilience and enhancing the overall urban environment.

Thamesmead, London: The redevelopment of a former brownfield site in Thamesmead incorporates sustainable urban design principles, such as green roofs, rainwater harvesting, and low-carbon infrastructure. This project demonstrates how brownfields can be repurposed to combat climate change while providing affordable housing.

Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, Germany: The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, Germany, stands as a testament to successful brownfield transformation. Once a coal mining site, it has been converted into a UNESCO World Heritage site that seamlessly blends industrial heritage with contemporary functions.[5]

The revitalized complex now hosts cultural venues, educational institutions, and a design center, attracting tourists and fostering sustainable economic growth. This transformation showcases the potential of repurposing brownfields to preserve historical heritage while promoting environmental sustainability.

The Bentway, Toronto, Canada: The Bentway is a unique urban revitalization project that transformed the space underneath the elevated Gardiner Expressway in Toronto into a vibrant public gathering place. Previously an underutilized brownfield area, this innovative project reclaimed the space, incorporating recreational amenities, green spaces, and cultural programming.[6]

The Bentway provides opportunities for community engagement, fosters social connections, and enhances the surrounding urban environment. It serves as a remarkable example of how brownfield sites can be repurposed creatively to bring new life to neglected areas while promoting community well-being and sustainable urban development.

A disused mining site

A disused mining site


Brownfields and climate change are interconnected challenges that require urgent attention. By recognizing the potential of brownfield remediation and incorporating climate resilience strategies into their revitalization, we can turn these abandoned sites into beacons of sustainable development. The remediation of brownfields not only mitigates climate change impacts but also fosters environmental justice and revitalizes communities. It is through these combined efforts that we can pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient future for generations to come.


[1] The Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory (FCSI).[]
[2]Oliver Milman, “Urban heat island effect exacerbating summer heatwaves, study shows” (The Guardian, 14 July, 2021).[]
[3]“20 years later: From odor-filled dump to lush park, Fresh Kills in photos” (SILive, 18 March, 2021).[]
[4]“Reclaiming the high line” (Design Trust). []
[5]Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen (UNESCO).[]
[6]The Bentway (Project Under Gardiner), WATERFRONToronto []

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