By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


”Brownfield” is a term used to designate undeveloped area, often in urban areas, that is underdeveloped because of low level hazardous waste contamination on the site. This often refers to land previously employed for industrial purposes. Because brownfield contain low level hazardous waste contamination, those locations can be reused following clean-up. However, clean-up costs, which in the US are fully tax deductible, can make brownfield land undesirable for redevelopment. The term “brownfield” generally implies that the contaminated tract of land can be used for upgraded development (e.g., from former industrial use to commercial use) once it has been remediated.

On the US Environmental Protection Agency site, existing brownfield can be mapped using one of several options (Brownfield mapping). Each state has a brownfield program, and brownfields in each state can be accessed using this link: State Brownfields.

Brownfield present urban development issues that can promote urban sprawl. Once an area has been contaminated and becomes a brownfield, its continued use for many purposes is unattractive. This leads to evacuated or empty urban spaces, and the amount of space within the city is under-used. Often, developers would rather develop un-developed land (i.e., greenfields) that does not have a prior use history that would classify the land as a brownfield because they do not wish to take on the cleanup costs associated with renewing the brownfield. This leads to urban sprawl and significant unused urban space in the form of brownfields. According to a report by the National Governor’s Association, 90 percent of urban brownfields remain undeveloped.

The redevelopment of brownfields is important within the context of urban planning and in efforts to promote ecologically stable urban development. The reuse of brownfields can, for example, reduce the human ecological footprint (see entry in this dictionary, ecological footprint), and can therefore play some role in promoting sustainable urban development and redevelopment. Brownfield redevelopment can, for example, increase the use-density of urban space, and can reduce a number of environmental harms by encouraging residential development of brownfield spaces. Financially, studies indicate that every $1 in brownfield redevelopment produces an $8 return, which would appear to make brownfield redevelopment an attractive financial investment. Liability laws associated with brownfield redevelopment, however, tend to present legal barriers to brownfield redevelopment and require revision to enhance brownfield redevelopment efforts. Many states and the federal government in the US offer brownfield redevelopment grants. For a discussion of ways to improve brownfield development see, McCarthy, 2002.

Brownfield redevelopment also involves environmental justice issues (see dictionary entry on environmental justice). Brownfield involve environmental justice issues because brownfield are often located within or near low income and minority communities. Failure to redeveloped these locations have numerous adverse consequences for low-income and minority communities such as those related to exposure to wastes found on brownfield sites (Lee and Mohai, 2012).

Not all brownfield issues are confined to urban spaces. Within the US, a significant brownfield issue exists for Native American peoples. Native American lands contain oil and mining brownfields, for example, that are present environmental justice concerns for Native American peoples. The US EPA maintains a webpage devoted to tribal brownfields programs (Tribal Brownfields). There are 561 tribal governments in the US, and 72 of those tribal governments maintain brownfield information according the US EPA website.

Green criminologists have not yet addressed issues related to brownfields.

Further Reading


Lee, Sangyun, and Paul Mohai. “Environmental Justice implications of Brownfield redevelopment in the United States.” Society & Natural Resources 25, no. 6 (2012): 602-609.

McCarthy, Linda. (2002). “The brownfield dual land-use policy challenge: reducing barriers to private redevelopment while connecting reuse to broader community goals.” Land Use Policy 19, 4: 287-296.

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