Tackling Brownfields and Land-Take in Europe


By URBACT, on November 3rd, 2014

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Brownfields are an inherent feature of most, if not all, cities around the globe.  They all have a potential contribution to make the long-term success of their city. However, if they are ignored, brownfield sites can become the focus of social and economic problems.

The 4th International Conference on Managing Urban Land celebrated progress, almost a decade after the first Concerted Action on Brownfield and Economic Regeneration Network (CABERNET) conference,  mark lessons learnt and presented new insights in how brownfield sites can be part of a vibrant urban environment. Contributions that increases our understanding of the complex system that a given city allows private and public decision makers to move forward on a sounder, more predictable basis than before were invited to be presented and discussed. The CABERNET project was delighted to be working with friends – old and new – from European Commission 7th Framework funded projects Global Partners in Contaminated Land Management  (GLOCOM) , Greenland , Tailored Improvement of Brownfield Regeneration in Europe (TIMBRE) and HOlistic Management of Brownfield REgeneration (HOMBRE). Also URBACT was attending the Conference, where best practices in urban policies and land management were presented.

A European Challenge

Since 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of human population is living in urban areas, and cities will absorb all the population growth expected in the future. The trend of urbanization will continue. By 2050, about 70 % of world’s people are likely to be city dwellers, compared with less than 30 % in 1951. Between 2011 and 2050, the world urban population will pass from 7.0 billion to 9.3 billion (UN, 2012). In this global context, brownfields are becoming a real challenge – and resource-efficiency of urban areas becomes crucial!
Our societies and their economic systems are based on natural resources. They are fundamental not for the economy but also for the services they provide for our health, well-being and quality of life. In human history, the level of natural resources consumption per capita changed dramatically. In agrarian societies, the resources consumption per capita was essentially devoted to the food, the feed needed for animals and the biomass. As the demand of resource for the economy is growing, the standard of living is rising and the middle-class is emerging in developing countries, the demand of natural resources increases and threatens the security of supply. Access to resources becomes a major economic concern. The depletion and scarcity of natural resources generates competition and increasing prices, which is also the case of land. Cities use and need land. Land is an essential resource for cities, as it consists in the basis for built urban environment. Consequently, a resource-efficient use of the land is crucial for cities. Concepts for remediation and re-use of brownfields in urban areas are needed.

Actual Discussion Topics

The Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe suggests that by 2050 there should be no net land take sealed by built development.  How this is going to happen? Do we need in Europe a “cheese cover” put on the top of all developments – meaning, “freezing” all further Greenfield development? This will only be possible with effective “recycling” of formerly used land for buildings and infrastructure (“hard development”) and unsealed uses (“soft development”). Of course across Europe a large amount of land recycling already takes place under the influence or normal market forces. However, in some cases the recycling of formerly used land is stalled for a variety of environmental, economic and/or social reasons, and these “Brownfield” sites are often in or near urban areas.

The dynamics of land use are cyclic, where site developments are planned, realised and then utilised and maintained until the site is decommissioned or simply abandoned, after which a new cycle for site re-development starts. The land use cycle basically consists of periods of beneficial use alternated by periods of transition. Brownfields reflect periods of stagnation and partial transition of land use, and typically require some form of intervention (usually public) to complete a process of transition. In practice the costs of transition for many Brownfield sites have remained a major barrier to action; and the robustness of transition achieved – in particular its longer term economic sustainability – have been insufficient to support durable re-use of some sites. The hypothesis developed in the research project HOMBRE is that these barriers and failures result from an incomplete understanding of the range of potential services a site could provide, and hence a sub-optimal overall value for the completed regeneration.

Sustainability and wider stakeholder participation are seen as important tools in achieving more services and hence higher overall value in regeneration and hence more cost-effective and durable solutions.

Research and Application

URBACT is dealing also with the topics of land management strategies, brownfield regeneration and new technologies. Two references are the projects of LUMASEC and UseAct, both focussing on land management, reduction of land consumption, innovative partnership approaches and cutting energy consumption.

The URBACT working group “Land Use Management for Sustainable European Cities” (LUMASEC) researched and supported cities’ urban development at case study cities and city regions in order to learn more about practical ways to do sustainable land use management. Managing urban sprawl, unlocking the potential of brownfield sites and creating competitive, attractive environments where communities can flourish is the shared aim behind this European project. As a network of private and public sector decision makers, LUMASEC developed strategies for sustainable land use management on Land Use Management for Sustainable European Cities. After 2 years work, the project delivered results on both the strategic level (planning methods, observation tools) and the operational level (action plans, case-studies), and aimed at producing methods and practical recommendations.

The Use-Act project (Urban Sustainable Environmental Actions) is aiming to define ways to achieve opportunities for people and businesses to settle in existing locations without consumption of further land, thanks to new planning and partnership approaches and at the same time developing the construction and real estate economies, making the most of the historic building heritage and related character, reducing energy consumption in buildings and cutting back on further infrastructure building/management costs. The project was launched on 01 May 2012 and will conclude in April 2015. The philosophy of the Use-Act project is connected with the need to support urban communities, which express a desire to find solutions and implement practices to combat the harmful mechanism, which:

  •  Pushes administrations to use territory to foster, such as demand for new spaces (and new quality of living and working spaces) by exiting inhabitants or newcomers, both in new settlements and in to be renewed districts; Development of the “real estate developers”/”builders” economy; and Increase revenue, in the short-term, through the takings from “planning fees”.
  •  Entails, through the urban sprawl, induced by the new use of land, the loss of environmental resources and, in the long-term, greater public and private costs, also in relation to the management of the public utilities network in very broadly urbanised areas, even those which are deteriorated.

Asking Municipalities to Implement “Local Action Plans” Is a Very Successful Instrument

Brownfield regeneration is a key policy objective to help cope with rising populations in urban areas in some parts of the EU. Recently, around 500,000 hectares of brownfield land were estimated to be available for development in Europe – it goes with the fact that every year in the EU, more than 1000 km2 of undeveloped land is appropriated for housing, roads, industry, and recreation, without full consideration of diverse tangible and intangible services and values those soils provide. We should act responsibly on our resources, and we should not do harm our future generations.

Urban policies and land management are therefore two central issues for the future of our society: the experiences from the URBACT projects LUMASEC or UseAct demonstrated the importance of integrated urban development processes. As an example, during the LUMASEC project, the urban community of Saint-Etienne / France, succeeded to develop an integrated land use strategy, including all brownfields areas and urban development hot spots, by developing useful tools such as Land Bank and public private interventions.

In the UseAct project, the Municipality of Baia Mare / Romania is working on a land management policy to better enhance the potential of metropolitan development areas, in which preserving their existing function, increasing their potential through urban renewal and building refitting or the development of gentrification policies play an important role. Also the topic of “sustainable redevelopment” of brownfield areas, following the decline of the mining industry and underused or derelict lands is developed. These areas do not currently contribute to the attractiveness and competitiveness of the city, but they could be transformed into attractive focus points. Public and private actors compose the Romanian Local Support Group.

The URBACT method, involving all actors and going “on the ground” – as a bottom-up process, by implementing concrete actions is exactly the way forward: asking municipalities to implement “Local Action Plans” is a very successful instrument, which confirm the necessary connection of research and practice.

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