Underused or abandoned urban industrial or commercial sites. In the United States, it specifically refers to those sites that are perceived to be contaminated, making them difficult to be re-used or redeveloped. (Changes in site ownership, remediation technology, and local environmental laws can affect the perception of contamination). One unintended consequence of environmental cleanup laws in the U.S., was the development of more brownfields, as property owners liable for expensive cleanups abandoned properties to develop new ones elsewhere (in undeveloped space, aka "greenfields").

Brownfields are a shameful waste of otherwise valuable land. The term brownfields typically refers to abandoned industrial sites that have been or thought to have been contaminated by hazardous waste. The Love Canal fiasco in the 1970s spurred the creation of the EPA Superfund to require the remediation of such places by requiring the owners or buyers of such sites to pay for remediation of the site before reuse. Regretfully, many of the companies that originally contaminated the land are out of business and bankrupt. Since a new owner would have to pay for remediation, the land may actually have a negative value, in spite of a favorable location, built-in infrastructure, or potential economic value. While the regulations may discourage future abuse of the land, it has resulted in large tracts of many industrial cities being forsaken.

The cost of remediation is often enormous, so few sites ever get cleaned up and reused. Newer industries move out to suburban greenfields, where plentiful land and lack of potential envioronmental liabilities are a powerful lure, leaving the areas surrounding older urban brownfields devastated with little hope for revival. People living in the working class neighborhoods near the brownfields used to depend on the industries that used to occupy them for jobs. With neither jobs nor positive ambience available, those who can leave do so, leaving the neighborhoods to the criminals and the rats, or those that remain are forced to commute to the suburbs for work.

While the intentions of the Superfund might have been noble, the results have been disastrous, and politicians are just starting to realize the mistakes they made. Restoring many of these sites to pristine condition is unfeasable in many cases, and in many cases it is for all practical purposes unnecessary. There is a balance that needs to be struck between costs of remediation, economic benefits of returning a piece of land to productive use, and the hazards of reusing land that is not quite pristine. It is foolish to allow a daycare center to be built on a site that was contaminated by heavy metals, but why not pave it over and build a warehouse or other light industry on the site. Other hazards which pose little danger to surface dwellers, such as contamination of ground water by fuel spills could be redeveloped into parks or shopping centers.

Perhaps another philosophy would be to open up the brownfields to those dirty, but necessary businesses vital to the economy, regulating them appropriately to prevent further damage to the area, but preventing them from soiling unspoiled areas. Thoughtful and creative legislation could help revive dying urban centers in cites such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Cleveland, help control suburban sprawl, and ease traffic congestion, which would help lower pollution for us all.

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