Brownfields are defined as a commercial or industrial property which is or possibly is contaminated, vacant, derelict or under-utilized, and is suitable for development or redevelopment for the general benefit of the municipality. An estimated 30,000 brownfields exist across Canada, according to the Canadian Institute of Resources Law and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Reclaiming and naturalizing these sites presents opportunities for redevelopment that can have enormous environmental and social benefits.
Remediation, naturalization and partial redevelopment of urban brownfield sites is recommended to decrease development pressure on the urban fringe, reduce environmental risks from potentially contaminated land and increase the vitality of urban areas.
Opportunities for partial redevelopment and green densification. Brownfield sites present a number of opportunities for redevelopment because land is usually serviced and often is in close proximity to urban amenities such as public transportation, grocery stores, commercial areas and schools.
Financial incentives. Municipalities can provide financial incentives to encourage developers to naturalize and redevelop brownfield sites. This may be most feasible in cities with higher real estate demand. For example, the province of Quebec has successful matched-funding programs to support municipal brownfield redevelopment initiatives.
Remediation versus disposal. Where brownfields contain contaminants, remediation treatments (i.e., excavation, tank removal, capping, in-situ/on-site treatments, bioremediation, phytoremediation and lead and asbestos abatement) are used. The degree of remediation necessary will depend on a variety of site considerations as well as desired end use and proximity to residential areas.
The following approaches to brownfield redevelopment have been successful in various jurisdictions:
- Establish a brownfields community advisory committee to work with stakeholders, industry and community members in developing plans (Brantford, Ontario)
- Streamline approvals that “up-zone” brownfields to more economically valuable uses (Vancouver, British Columbia)
- Collaborate with the private sector to maximize public and private benefits from brownfield redevelopment (Vancouver, British Columbia)
- Create an endowment fund for brownfield redevelopment projects (Vancouver, British Columbia)
- Allow environmental professionals to oversee remediation of low-risk sites rather than municipal governments (Brantford and Hamilton, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec)
- Enhance collaboration between municipal and provincial governments for brownfield remediation (Montreal, Quebec)
- Eliminate future liability for sites remediated to government standards (being explored by provincial government in British Columbia)
The Business Side
The economic benefits to municipalities of brownfield reclamation and redevelopment include increased property tax base, job creation and promotion of economic renewal. Naturalization of brownfields can reduce the risk of flooding by reducing stormwater runoff through the establishment of greenspaces. Flood attenuation provided by established vegetation can protect critical municipal infrastructure and private property alike from damages in the case of severe weather events.
Although testing and remediation of brownfield sites can be costly, the investments made by municipal governments can be leveraged several fold. For example, a study of the economics of brownfield redevelopment in Hamilton, Ontario has demonstrated that for the City’s investment of $1,000,000, they have leveraged $15,000,000 in private investment and generated $400,000 in increased property taxes.
The Nature Side
Clean up and remediation of brownfield sites decreases the environmental liabilities from contaminants leaching into groundwater and from airborne pollutants. Remediation and naturalization of these sites present an opportunity to create new greenspace in urban and periurban areas.
Naturalization allows native plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife to become reestablished. This renewed ecosystem provides ecosystem services such as producing oxygen, sequestering carbon dioxide from the air, reducing the risk of flooding, and providing windbreaks to reduce dust and capture blowing snow. By remediating and naturalizing part or all of a brownfield, municipalities can also increase local biodiversity.
The Community Side
Increasing density through brownfield redevelopment in suburban and periurban areas leads to neighbourhoods becoming more liveable, with more mixed-use development (residential, commercial, light industrial) and populations that can support public transportation.
Reclamation of brownfields has an aesthetic benefit to the community and improves property values for the surrounding neighbourhoods. Adding naturalization to reclamation and redevelopment enhances this positive impact on communities, as access to urban parks and greenspace improve human health, social, cultural and recreational opportunities and real estate marketability.
 &  Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA). 2021. About brownfields. AUMA.
 United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2019. Cleaning up brownfield sites. US EPA.
 De Sousa, C. A. 2006. Urban brownfields redevelopment in Canada: the role of local government. Canadian Geographer, 50(3), 392-407.
 Piccioni, L. 2003. The Erasing of Brownfields in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Ecosystems and Sustainable Development. Wessex Institute of Technology. 2:779-787.
Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA). 2021. About brownfields. AUMA. Available online at: https://www.auma.ca/advocacy-services/programs-initiatives/brownfields/about-brownfields.
De Sousa, C. A. 2006. Urban brownfields redevelopment in Canada: the role of local government. Canadian Geographer, 50(3), 392-407.
Piccioni, L. 2003. The Erasing of Brownfields in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Ecosystems and Sustainable Development. Wessex Institute of Technology. 2:779-787.
Primeau, S., Bell, M., Riopel, M., Ewaschuk, E., & Doell, D. 2009. Green Communities Guide: Tools to Help Restore Ecological Processes in Alberta’s Built Environments. Land Stewardship Centre of Canada.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2019. Cleaning up brownfield sites. US EPA. Available online at: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-10/documents/cleaning_up_brownfield_sites.pdf.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2021. Overview of EPA's Brownfields Program. United States Government. Available online at: https://www.epa.gov/brownfields/overview-epas-brownfields-program.