What is a Brownfield?

The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), in 2003, defined brownfields as: “abandoned, vacant, derelict or underutilized commercial or industrial property where past actions have resulted in actual or perceived contamination and where there is an active potential for redevelopment.” 

Brownfield lands include abandoned service stations, steel mills, dry-cleaning establishments, railway properties, harbours and other sites where contaminants were used as part of an industrial process.  Although the establishments may have closed, the contaminants remain.

The “three-legged stool” of brownfield contamination are:

  • Groundwater and surface water contamination – contaminants enter the surface water and groundwater systems
  • Soil contamination – contaminants enter and remain in the soil
  • Soil vapour intrusion – contaminants in the soil enter overlying buildings as vapour, causing air quality problems

What does “active potential for redevelopment” mean?

Typically, contaminated lands are classified into three groups:

  • High value lands – property whose value, particularly in comparison with remediation costs, makes it economically viable to redevelop.  Such properties might lie in downtown cores, gentrified areas of a city or in desirable suburban settings;
  • Medium value lands – property that cannot be economically redeveloped without some form of governmental financial support for remediation.  The level of support is usually not extensive, and there is a reasonable payback period for the government;
  • Low value lands – property whose value, particularly in comparison with remediation costs, does not justify redevelopment.  While government financial assistance may be sought for such lands, the payback is either very long-term or inadequate;

High and medium value lands are candidates for redevelopment; low value lands generally are not.   The value of the land depends on the timing in the economic cycle or the effects of surrounding development on the parcel of land.   Many properties cycle through these three groups.

In considering whether land may have potential for redevelopment, developers consider the intended land use.  This governs the profit potential of the property.

What can be done with low value brownfields?

While low value land is not a candidate for redevelopment, it can be put to an interim use.  For instance, if soil vapour intrusion is not a risk, the land might become a park.  A popular interim reuse for low value lands is as a “brightfield” – the land may be used for the generation of solar energy or, if it is large enough, as a host for a windmill farm to generate wind energy.

Why is “interim use” important?

The value of land has two components – its absolute value and the cost of remediation.  The value of land may increase over time (for instance, the gentrification of the surrounding area may make the land desirable for residential or mixed residential/commercial use, thus increasing its value).  In addition, the cost of remediation may decrease, either absolutely or in relation to the land’s value.  If either (or both) of these happen, redevelopment may be economically viable.  Land that has been put to an interim use may therefore be available for future redevelopment.  On the other hand, land that is reused for industrial purposes (which sometimes happens) may not be available in the near future.

What protection does society have when brownfields are redeveloped?

A potential developer of brownfield lands conducts a risk assessment to determine the nature of the risks and the steps that can be taken to eliminate or manage them.  If, given the costs associated with elimination and management, the property remains economically viable, it becomes a candidate for redevelopment.

Provincial laws and regulations govern the risk assessment process, and potential financial partners (banks, investors and insurers) look at the risk assessments in determining whether they will participate in redevelopment.  The municipality involved may also have input into the risk assessment.

In certain instances, risk assessment is site-specific – it considers the intended use of the property, the uses of the surrounding properties, the consequent need for remediation (and the costs), and management of any remaining risks.  As an example, an isolated site with a low level of contamination proposed for a highway interchange presents fewer, and more manageable, risks than does a city-centre site with high levels of contamination surrounded by, and proposed for, residential use.  Clearly, applying the same standard for both would tend to discourage redevelopment of the former site because it would not be economically feasible.

Developers and investors in brownfields work with responsible governments (provincial and, if applicable, municipal) throughout the redevelopment process.  They also involve other stakeholders (e.g. neighbours of a brownfield property).

Often, government processes mandate a public consultation on the redevelopment, to assist stakeholders in understanding the redevelopment proposal (and attendant remediation and risk management) and the science behind it.  Developers and investors welcome the opportunities to hold open, meaningful communication with stakeholders.

Does brownfield reuse help reduce carbon emissions/greenhouse gases?

Brownfield reuse does not do anything directly to reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases (GHGs).  However, brownfields are sometimes used to bring residents and employees closer to the enterprises they use and that employ them (as, for instance, when a city-centre brownfield is redeveloped for residential or mixed residential/commercial use), and this has the effect of reducing commute times (or reducing/eliminating commuting by private vehicles) and promoting public transit use, which does directly reduce carbon emissions and GHGs.  In addition, a new building on a remediated brownfield can be built to a higher standard of energy efficiency, which also directly reduces carbon emissions and GHGs.

What is the Canadian Brownfields Network, and how does it fit in?

The Canadian Brownfields Network (CBN) is a knowledge-based national network of passionate, multi-disciplinary industry professionals, focused on uncovering, understanding and sharing brownfield barriers and solutions.  Our vision is that brownfield property reuse be the preferred solution by developers.

CBN’s membership consists of developers, investors, financiers, insurers, legal advisors, practitioners, consultants and academics in brownfields, and is the only such broad national group.  It works, directly and through its Committees, to investigate and promote best practices in brownfield remediation and redevelopment, to engage stakeholders (including governments and the public) in dialogue on brownfield issues, and to promote the reuse of brownfield properties.  We partner with other Canadian and international organizations in the pursuit of our mission.  As society becomes more aware of the limited availability and relative undesirability of using greenfields for development, the brownfield option will only grow in importance and attractiveness.

How can I support CBN and its work?

If your business or organization is directly involved in brownfield redevelopment, consider becoming a Corporate member of CBN.  This category of membership offers many opportunities to influence the brownfields industry and its stakeholders directly, and can also assist you in promoting your organization.  You may also wish to become an Individual member; this still gives you access to our communications and you have the opportunity to participate in our Committees (Communication; Development; Government Relations; and Technical Advisory).  Finally, both members (of all categories) and non-members are invited to attend our events and annual Conference.


Introducing CBN's Corporate Members
  • Geosyntec Consultants
  • Vertex Environmental
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