4 challenges and opportunities when redeveloping brownfields

02 May 2022, Annette Haselhoff

There is a tremendous shortage of space. Societal changes in terms of climate and the environment, constant economic growth and the need to expand the construction of residential properties and industrial estates present opportunities for the repurposing of brownfields. So what are brownfields and what makes redeveloping them so challenging? Annette Haselhoff, Consultant Site (Re)development, shares her vision on the issue in this blog.

About this blog series

The industrial sector is facing the substantial challenge of going green. For example, the sector must become climate neutral by 2050, while the world will still need industrial commodities after 2050. Emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2, must be reduced by at least 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990). As an industrial organisation, how can you put circularity and sustainability into practice? How can you ensure that your business location is climate resilient and future proof? In this series of blogs, our experts will examine a whole range of issues such as these. This fifth part explains the 4 greatest challenges and opportunities when redeveloping brownfields.

A brownfield is a well-known term in the soil sector, but less well known within site (re)development. Brownfields are outdated, often inner-city industrial estates where closed and abandoned factories dominate the cityscape and where the ground is often contaminated. A brownfield can qualify for repurposing from a technical standpoint, allowing it to be transformed into a living, working, or recreational area.

As a consultant, I am engaged in repurposing former industrial sites and making them sustainable on a daily basis. It is a wonderful and challenging profession. Redevelopment of brownfields differs from development of greenfields, the latter is done on previously unused land.

Despite the opportunities, the redevelopment of brownfields is slow to take off. Why is that? What opportunities exist? And how can we ensure that these areas do actually get repurposed?

Challenge 1: Development need and development potential as guiding factors

The chances of a brownfield being redeveloped depends on two factors: the local need to fulfil specific tasks and ambitions (the development need) and the site’s potential in terms of being able to contribute to one or more of these tasks (the development potential). In order to set the development of brownfields in motion, it is essential to be guided primarily by spatial and societal requirements and to avoid viewing technical issues as a constraint.

Challenge 2: Costs and uncertainties; managing risks

Developers are still somewhat reluctant when it comes to brownfields. On the one hand because they are insufficiently aware of the redevelopment opportunities, and on the other hand because they lack an adequate understanding of the financial and legal risks associated with such a project. Dealing with uncertainties requires a systematic approach and risk management (more on this in the following blog article). It is also important for risks not to mount up, since that things get really complicated. Being able to buy one’s way out of risks is an advantage. Future owners and users benefit from having maximum certainty. Redeveloping brownfields also calls for smart financial arrangements, including to capitalise on social benefits and to make it possible to spread costs over time and between parties.

Challenge 3: Image and clarifying the added value 

Brownfields often have a poor image. This is in part due to the impact of contaminated soil and the complexity of (environmental) regulations. This impedes initiative, dialogue and thus the courage to get started. Clarifying the opportunities and casting brownfields in a positive light might help in that regard. However, clarifying and adequately communicating the added value of an area proves to be tricky in practice. A good start could be to temporarily put the site into use to combat further degradation of the area and thus to ‘showcase’ it positively. Thereby creating an air of positivity in the area. Other things that could help in that respect include making it possible to experiment in terms of temporary purpose and linking functions to the temporary purpose. Thus boosting the development need of brownfields and making investment in them appealing. 

Challenge 4: Interaction and dialogue

It is well known that personal competencies and interactions on the part of those involved as well as trust and cooperation between parties are essential for the success of a redevelopment project. Interaction between the initiator and (environmental) official is often difficult. Not being able to involve one another (or not being able to do so in a timely manner), language barriers and cultural barriers often get in the way.

In the case of site development of a brownfield, the most rigorous dialogue is between the initiator and the local authority, with the (environmental) official on the sideline. Successful redevelopment of brownfields calls for continuous, timely dialogue between all actors and various substantive disciplines. It is a challenging process requiring a multidisciplinary, integrated approach that combines and harmonises construction, infrastructure, water and environment precisely. A process that puts creativity and trust centre stage. Flexibility in terms of policy, legislation and regulations is a prerequisite in that regard.

In short, the redevelopment of brownfields presents opportunities to repurpose the available land and to use it to meet the needs of our time. We cannot keep building on ‘greenfield’ sites when the demand for residential properties or industrial estates is so high. Brownfields are potentially a good alternative and generate added value for areas, including the perspective of the healthy city, climate and the energy transition, the quality of urban planning, heritage and cultural history.

Keen to find out more about site preparation for subsequent users or site redevelopment? Check out our webpage on Site (re)development.


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