Brownfield redevelopment

Discussions on DeSousa & McCarthy

2009.02.12 307Y093 slide show-1

Prepared 12 February 2009 for Prof. Ernest Opoku-Boateng (JIE307Y1Y, University of Toronto).

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2009.02.12 307Y093 slide show-2
Let’s start with putting our head around the brownfield. McCarthy and DeSousa both turn to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard definition of those “abandoned, idled, or under-utilized industrial and commercial facilities where redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived contamination” (McCarthy, 287).

What’s important to understand is that while brownfields often are found in urban centres, they can just as likely be located in suburban or rural locations, particularly where there’s a history of hazardous storage, mining, or drilling activity. But for sake of this discussion, McCarthy and DeSousa refine their attention to the urban presence of brownfields.

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McCarthy takes on two main challenges associated with brownfield recovery: one is economic, the other is social.

With the former, how do we encourage private-sector redevelopment on brownfield lands when the cleanup costs and remediation standards vary with the location?

And socially, in what sense does brownfield remediation benefit the community nearby a site?

How can remediation foster stronger participation and stewardship?

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The economics of brownfields is complicated by historic development and their industrial usage during the 19th and 20th centuries. Whereas industrial activity was once concentrated close to the urban centre in many cities, some of this activity has since left and relocated around the urban periphery where land costs are lower and access to transportation linkages is unimpeded (McCarthy, 288).

Consequently, this migration left behind abandoned industrial sites which eventually fell into disrepair. Re-use of these lands was impeded by the remnants of past activity such as waste disposal, manufacturing slag, munitions, petrochemicals, and other toxic substances (DeSousa, 132). So re-using this real estate for other commercial or residential applications meant first cleaning and safely disposing of toxic material, soil, and water.

These costs are often prohibitively expensive.

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In Canada, regulation over environmental management is predicated on a two-tier system: the federal and provincial/regional government. Unlike in the U.S. and other locations where the federal government handles brownfield policy, federal oversight in Canada is limited to federally owned land under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The provinces meanwhile are tasked with the cleanup of most other contaminated sites (DeSousa, 136).

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This results in different standards based on location, and for real estate buyers, it complicates an understanding over what level of remediation must be met in order to satisfy provincial standards. DeSousa (136) noted that these stakeholders favour a harmonization of the different standards between provinces to resemble more what other countries have, such as the U.S..

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Nevertheless, provincial governments and Ottawa established the Canadian Council of Ministers for the Environment, or the CCME, to help both levels of government work together to co-ordinate contamination policy (DeSousa, 136). The CCME drafted the National Contaminated Sites Remediation Program, or NCSRP, which established the “human and financial resources . . . for identifying” brownfield sites and finding global best practices on remediating contaminated sites (ibid., 136). Unfortunately, provincial “downloading” from the federal government in the 1990s altered this relationship and terminated the NCSRP in 1995 (ibid, 136).

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So what does this “lack of consistency” mean to the stakeholders who could otherwise invest in remediating disused brownfields and help breathe new life after a toxic “death”? DeSousa (139) notes that the first consideration is one of liability. Without universal standards for brownfield remediation, it complicates questions like who is responsible for the cleanup. Do tougher environmental policies mean the owner must retroactively repeat this after a previous cleanup? Who should pay for these cleanups? The other consideration is funding. Which parties exactly are responsible for paying for their share of remediation? What if that company no longer exists?

In Canada, two approaches to managing liability are exercised: joint and several and allocated-apportioned (DeSousa, 139). Joint and several requires that a primary party, such as the main company who owned the site, is charged with financing the cleanup, and it becomes their responsibility to track down other parties which contributed to contamination on that site, such as third-party vendors. The “allocated-apportioned approach”, meanwhile, tasks the cleanup costs directly and proportionately to the degree which those businesses contributed to a site’s contamination (ibid., 139).

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Whereas the U.S. has what is called Superfund, a federal remediation programme managed by the EPA to help finance cleanup by the public sector, Canada federally lacks a counterpart. There was an attempt to adopt a similar system in the NCSRP, but since its 1995 termination, this largely has been a stalled affair.

Québec went ahead and adopted the Urban Contaminated Sites Rehabilitation Program as the functional equivalent to Superfund, with a $40mil allocation to remediate brownfields within the province (DeSousa, 140).

One option which has been tried in the U.S. is tax-increment financing (DeSousa, 142). This allows developers to deduct from their taxes their cleanup and remediation expenses as a financial incentive. The European system, meanwhile, operates less like the American system as a consequence of having different federal laws within each country, as well as state/provincial laws and even local-level laws addressing brownfield contamination and remediation (DeSousa, 144).

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So why should we remediate brownfields, aside from obvious ecological considerations? For one, owing to the central location for many of these brownfield sites, remediation opens a way to open “new” land to the existing cityscape, and it can help to increase urban density. The bigger reason, though, has more to do with increased limitations on greenfield development, limiting edge city development. For example, regional urban growth plans increasingly include policies which advocate denser urban growth and the protection of undeveloped lands. The downside here is that this smart growth policy approach currently applies to a select number of urban areas, the Greater Golden Horseshoe recently becoming one of them with the Places to Grow plan (Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal, 2006).

Brownfield remediation also has the added incentive of siting a project where existing infrastructures (such as roads, sewer connections and hydro lines) are already in place. And finally, in locations where brownfields, particularly small sites, offer limited financial return for private development — such as in impoverished areas — the emphasis should be placed towards the needs of the poorer residents who could utilize the space for social improvements. This could occur by creating park land, community centres, or even affordable housing (McCarthy, 293). In so doing, this strategy can help to foster stronger community relationships and engender stronger social and even economic stability. As McCarthy explained, however, these brownfield remediation efforts may be socially desirable, but they are often overseen opportunities by developers whose interests are in making a profit on their investment (ibid., 293).

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Before wrapping up here, let’s take a look at one of Toronto’s best known brownfield sites, the West Don Lands site. It now undergoing the brownfield remediation in preparation to develop the site as a new, mixed-use neighbourhood. Originally, this was the site of the Consumers’ Gas Company, a private coal gasworks which opened in 1848, delivering services for city street lamps and stoves (Careless, 101). Once natural gas and electricity took over as better alternatives, the Consumers’ Gas coal plant in 1954 shut operations, and the facility was since demolished. A century of accumulated toxic remnants from slag and heavy metals, however, remained.

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A previous attempt to remediate this site in the 1980s when it then was known as the Ataratiri project (Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Plan 2005). Presently, the West Don Lands development hopes to pick up where Ataratiri left off by creating a new inner-city neighbourhood on recovered land. The Ataratiri project, which was ultimately cancelled due to a recession in the early 1990s, was intended to include 7,000 housing units (ibid.). The West Don Lands, meanwhile, is designed around a mixed-income community with affordable housing interspersed with market-price housing.

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  1. Given the two-tier system and lack of unified inter-provincial consensus, what directions might Queen’s Park pursue to decrease barriers to enabling brownfield remediation?
  2. Beyond commercial or residential development, what other applications might brownfield remediation cleanup optimally serve?
  3. In an international context, how do you see non-governmental organisations and multi-lateral governmental alliances willingly funding and managing the remediation efforts for some of the most toxic brownfield sites on the planet, many of which their commercial interests contributed to the pollution in the first place?
  4. What else comes to mind?


Careless, J.M.S. 1984. Toronto to 1918: an illustrated history. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers.

DeSousa, Chris. 2001. Contaminated sites: the Canadian situation in an international context. Journal of Environmental Management, 62: 131-54.

McCarthy, Linda. 2002. Brownfield redevelopment in Toronto: an examination of past trends and future prospects. Land Use Policy, 19, 287–8.

Ministry of Public Infrastructural Renewal, Province of Ontario. 2006. Places to grow — better choices, brighter future: growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Toronto: Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal.

Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation. 2005. West Don Lands precinct plan. Toronto: TWRC.