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by Sarah Stevens 

With a plethora of redevelopment projects and ecological and economic opportunities, brownfield restoration is changing cities across the United States.

Quick Background: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a brownfield site as one whose reuse or redevelopment is complicated by the presence or potential presence of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. Judging only by appearance, a brownfield is just that—a brown, contaminated site left in the wake of rapid industrialization. Many communities are now reaping the ecological and economic benefits of restoring brownfields.

Recently, the 2013 Brownfields Conference in Atlanta stressed the importance of innovative revitalization to achieve the holy trinity: “better communities, stronger economies, and an improved environment, which requires collaboration among Federal, private, and public sectors to achieve the highest success rate and return on investment.

In 2013 alone, the EPA awarded $4 million in grants to 20 communities to develop area-wide plans and specific brownfield restoration strategies. One of the communities, National City, California, received a grant to transform a brownfield in its polluted Westside neighborhood into a state-of-the-art green industrial park.

Atlanta is another major city that took full advantage of the EPA grant program and worked with the private sector to revitalize its community through brownfield restoration. One of Atlanta’s largest ($2 billion) and most notable brownfield revitalization projects was Atlantic Station, a 138-acre former Atlantic steel facility transformed into a vibrant multi-use community.

So what were the benefits of this $2 billion project? The site, which opened in 2003, created new jobs and today is the hub of a thriving commercial and residential community. The project’s efficient land use allowed for a smaller footprint, that is, less land than similar development projects with the same residential and commercial space. Another benefit of this brownfield project was the reduction of annual stormwater runoff by approximately 20 million cubic feet a year. In addition, the project upgraded the sewer system, separating the sanitary and storm sewer systems. Combined with other innovative stormwater control practices, this reduced the flow of pollutants from stormwater runoff.

The mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio is using a regional approach to restoring the city, notably the Ohio River and brownfields. The city is transforming the previously degraded river banks into a 45-acre riverfront park, with a new stadium, housing, and retail developments. The expected economic impact of The Banks redevelopment is $276 million per year.

Another innovative brownfield restoration project is the Woodbridge Waterfront Restoration in Woodbridge, New Jersey. The 185-acre brownfield site along the Raritan River was previously a large industrial facility. Great Ecology developed an innovative restoration approach that required three times less land than similar mitigation projects, resulting in more ecological uplift per dollar and tens of millions dollars in savings.

Public access is a critical aspect of the Woodbridge Waterfront Restoration design, which includes 2 miles of trails and boardwalks to reintroduce public access to the Raritan River for the first time in 100 years. Great Ecology is working with the local school district to incorporate greenhouses (with park fauna) into the environmental education curriculum. Key to the success of this project is the interdisciplinary team and stakeholder outreach, working closely with local, state, and Federal governments. Currently in the remediation and mitigation construction stage, the Woodbridge Waterfront Park will open in 2015.

Across the country, brownfield restoration projects are underway to restore the local environment and boost the economy. The challenge is to find innovative solutions to transform abandoned brownfield into sites beneficial to our environment and the economy.