The Impacts of Defining and Classifying Brownfields

 This piece was originally written by Ben Berolzheimer for Planning Methods (PLAN 720) in November 2018.

What are brownfields and why should planners care about them? The United States EPA (1) defines a brownfield as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” Brownfields are located in just about every community around the U.S., but are most prevalent in cities that have a history of industrial manufacturing followed by economic decline (2). Brownfields present the communities in which they are located with a variety of complex issues varying from chemical exposure to reduced property values. The ill effects of brownfields can disproportionately burden some groups, as minority populations are more likely to live near a brownfield or contaminated site (3).

Redeveloping brownfields can reduce these community issues while minimizing urban sprawl development. When it comes to development, brownfields offer an alternative to undeveloped land, also known as greenfields. By redeveloping brownfields, there is a reduction of waste as sites are often already fitted with supporting infrastructure, which promotes the reuse of building materials. Utilizing brownfields for redevelopment aims to increase more compact urban design through infill, and conserve more green space. While there is no definitive count of the total number of brownfield sites in the United States, estimates range anywhere from 450,000 to one million total sites (4). One of the major issues that planners, developers, and communities are confronted with when trying to remediate and redevelop brownfields is the difficulty in defining exactly what is a brownfield.


Photo of Zemědělský brownfield taken by Petr Vilgus (2007) from Creative Commons

By lacking a brownfield definition, municipalities might be unaware that such a site exists in their community.  By being able to define and identify a brownfield site, only then can local governments determine the suitability of and prioritize a brownfield for redevelopment. Counting and characterizing the total number of brownfield sites in the U.S. is no easy task. Much of the difficulty can be attributed to the lack of a clear and standard definition of brownfields. The EPA (5)  previously defined a brownfield as any “abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” Inclusion of the word “perceived” indicates that just about anywhere could be classified as a brownfield. Without clearly defined characteristics and boundaries of brownfields, governments have an uphill battle in identifying, characterizing, counting, and prioritizing them for redevelopment.

Another factor that makes counting and characterizing the total number of brownfields so difficult, is the perception that comes with a property being labeled as a brownfield. Since the brownfield definition is not clear, the ramifications of being labeled as such are not clear either. There are no legal implications, but a brownfield classification can often influence public perception that a site is contaminated, unclean, and unsafe. Because of this perception problem, property owners have no incentive to self-report or cooperate with counting efforts.

Planners can play a role in how brownfields are defined and targeted for redevelopment. Proactively identifying potential brownfields before they are actually classified is one approach. It is advantageous to get ahead of a classification perception problem than have to mitigate the effects post-classification. One method for predicting and identifying potential brownfields has been using tax delinquency data and industrial classification codes (6). Another potential approach to defining brownfield sites could be one of increased inclusivity. If a property is not posing a direct risk to communities then it might be more beneficial for neighboring citizen properties if the site is not classified. Labeling a property as a brownfield gives a site a scary name and adds a negative perception to something that is not clearly defined. When considering infill redevelopment of underused property, local governments and communities should look at all potential properties, not just brownfields. While the importance of evaluating property for potential contaminants and associated health risks should not be overlooked, the vague definition of a brownfield can cause more harm than good when it comes to governments and communities being able to redevelop underused properties.

Finally, when redeveloping brownfields, local governments should be cognizant of the potential for gentrification, and should take strides to ensure revitalization without displacement. Brownfield infill development in urban areas has often been associated with an increase in displacement of residents, which as mentioned early, are often minority communities. For this reason, is could be beneficial for a community based approach to redevelopment. The American Planning Association (APA) has developed a report to help planners with this process,“Creating community-based brownfield redevelopment strategies” (7). The APA report provides a step-by-step roadmap for community based organizations to take control of the redevelopment process and co-produce desired outcomes of the communities in which these properties are located. Local governments can also employee community residents in the revitalization of a brownfield through the EPA’s Environmental and Workforce Development Job Training Program Grant, which focuses on the underemployed surrounding a brownfield by providing training and employment opportunities to redevelop the site (8).  

Equipped with the knowledge about brownfield classification, redevelopment prioritization, and importance of community involvement during redevelopment, local governments, planners, and communities are better prepared to utilize brownfield sites. Through brownfield infill, municipalities can conserve precious greenfields while efficiently using land within the build environment. 


Photo of St James’s Park Lake taken by Colin (6 October 2012) from

About the author: Ben Berolzheimer is a first-year master’s student in UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning specializing in land use and environmental planning. He works part time as an ORISE Research Fellow at the U.S. EPA’s Office of Research and Development for the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program, where he creates strategies and frameworks to make research more impactful and user-focused. As a happily married newlywed, Ben enjoys spending his free time exploring the North Carolina mountains with his wife Carley.


  1. US EPA, 2018. Brownfields Definition. US EPA Brownfields Homepage
  2. Simons, Robert A. “How Many Urban Brownfields Are Out There?:  An Economic Base Contraction Analysis of 31 U.S. Cities.” Public Works Management & Police 2, No 3 (1998):  267-73.
  3. Byrne, Jason, Jennifer Wolch, and Jin Zhang. “Planning for Environmental Justice in an Urban National Park.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 52, No.3  (2009): 365-92.
  4. U.S. General Account Office (GAO). 1987. Superfund: Extent of Nation’s Potential Hazardous Waste Problem Still Unknown. GAO/RCED-88-44. Washington, DC: GAO
  5. US EPA, 1997. Brownfields Definition. US EPA Brownfields Homepage
  6. Cheng, Fangfang, Stan Geertman, Monika Kuffer, and Qingming Zhan. “An Integrative Methodology to Improve Brownfield Redevelopment Planning in Chinese Cities: A Case Study of Futian, Shenzhen.” Computers, Environment and Urban System 35, No. 5 (2011): 388-98.
  7. Hersh, Robert, David Morley, James Schwab and Laura Solitare. “Creating community-based brownfield redevelopment strategies.” American Planning Association. 2010.
  8. US EPA, 2019. Types of Brownfields Grant Funding. US EPA Brownfields