Originally Posted on October 30, 2015
By John McDonald, Extension Intern
Brownfield redevelopment has become a hot topic of late. The issue can be examined through a number of different lens. A project in Middletown, Connecticut will focus on the health outcomes of brownfield conversion in inner-city neighborhoods. Middletown’s Department of Planning, Conservation and Development has been awarded a grant from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Center for Disease Control. One of the aims of this initiative is to increase recreational opportunities on unused brownfield properties in order to address health disparities including childhood obesity and associated illnesses in several of Middletown’s urban areas. This is a very interesting take on the subject, and the process of creating playgrounds from brownfields can serve as a powerful symbol of neighborhood revitalization. The Middletown initiative also seeks to educate community residents about the potential hazards posed by contaminated buildings and land. This latter task is also being done in Waterbury through the Waterbury Environmental Health Fund.
As Hugh Bailey, a journalist for Hearst Media and urban planner who has researched brownfield revitalization in many communities across the nation and in Germany, points out, a paradigm shift is necessary when dealing with brownfields. It is not enough to see them in economic terms, but in how they can be redeveloped for the benefit of their communities. In his presentation, “Ruins Reborn”, developed from the short film and series of articles that were the product of his research, Mr. Bailey described the difference in how the Germans approach the issues of brownfields. The Germans have a more holistic view of the problem, unlike the case-by-case assessment typical of American brownfield redevelopment. Mr. Bailey discussed Landschaft Park in Duisburg, the focal point of a network of greenways and revitalized brownfields in the Ruhr Valley. This re-appropriation of the post-industrial environment is notable for its aesthetic and cultural significance. The Germans have taken what was once one of the most heavily industrialized regions of Europe, nearly rendered a wasteland by the departure of the manufacturing base, and transformed it into an area with a strong sense of place and community. This was achieved by tapping into the industrial heritage of the Ruhr Valley, which was not seen as a liability, but an important component of the region’s identity. The Germans were able to keep many buildings intact but gave them new purposes, ones that serve the greater good of the community and environment. Mr. Bailey noted that preserving buildings in place is a better solution than demolition, which releases large amounts of toxins into the atmosphere.
Mr. Bailey proposes something similar for the Route 8 corridor, and spoke of Knowlton Park in Bridgeport as a beachhead on that city’s beleaguered waterfront. He stressed the importance of connectivity, a theme frequently invoked at the Let’s Talk Trails event. If all the elements of the project are not united by a single vision or master plan, the prospect for success and overall effect of redevelopment will be much lower. Mr. Bailey brought up the necessity of using available state and federal funding to leverage private monies, but acknowledged that in-demand locations such as Boston and New York are seen as lower risk to developers than communities like Bridgeport, despite the latter city’s harbor and transportation access. Towns like Ansonia and Waterbury are considered even riskier, and the issue of connectivity is of great importance in this regard. Mr. Bailey spoke of the catalytic effect, the process by which one successfully redeveloped property changes the complexion of the surrounding neighborhood and spurs further revitalization, and hoped that Knowlton Park and O’Sullivan’s Island in Derby, in conjunction with the Naugatuck River Greenway, would have this effect in starting the transformation of the post-industrial landscape in the Route 8 corridor.