economic development

Brownfield Revitalization as a Community Development Catalyst

Originally Posted on October 30, 2015

By John McDonald, Extension Intern

Bristol Babcock
Former Bristol Babcock complex in Waterbury. Photo: John McDonald

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.

 

Reflections on Community Development

By Laura Brown, Community & Economic Development Educator, UConn Extension

conference
The conference in September.

Anyone who’s been in this field will attest that community development takes grit. Sometimes the day-to-day work is monotonous, exhausting, and trying. We’re challenged by conflicting personalities, politics and bureaucracies and given the charge of changing the status quo when the tides seem turned against us.  That’s why a couple of times a year I make it a point to get together with colleagues, to reflect, and zoom out of my work and world and learn about amazing things happening around the state and beyond.  Almost without fail when I make the effort to get out of my routine, I find myself utterly in awe, humbled, and reinvigorated.   The Southern New England American Planning Association Conference held in Hartford last week did that for me, even if my time there was short.

The Thursday keynote speaker at the Southern New England APA Conference in September, Peter Kageyama has written several books about community place-making.  I haven’t read any of them but we got a good feel for his approach to place-making through the bits of advice he shared using examples from cities like Detroit, Michigan and Greenville, South Carolina.  Not having read the book I can’t say how much of this advice is based on actual research versus anecdotes but the stories from communities across the country were compelling and inspiring.  I’ve always found this kind of storytelling, viral education, between communities to be one of the most effective ways to share community development. Here are a few of the tidbits I took away:

  • We should ask ourselves are we asking more from our cities other than to be safe and functional?  We should be aspiring for cities that are safe and functional but also interesting and comfortable.
  • Cities will give us back what we put it- we can think of these as “love letters” 
  • Sometimes you have tho break the rules to get where you want to be.  Rule challengers can help us think in new ways and explore what might be if things were different.  Peter gave the example of a spectacular lantern release in Grand Rapids that involved thousands more lanterns than were approved originally by the city.
  • Think easy- garden hose solutions work.  Some times I think we tend to overthink the issues we face in our communities- assuming that we need big complicated solutions to simple problems. Simple solutions, like a garden hose sprinkler in a park, can make our communities better places to live and work, even if they don’t require thousands of dollars to implement.
  • People need to play– We love to be surprised and delighted by our cities. The Mice on Main campaign inspired people to look for tiny mouse sculptures all over Greensville, South Carolina. Anther fantastic example involved an artist in Seattle who painted this “graffiti” on sidewalks that only appears when it rains.
  • We cant look at everything through the lens of cost- Those of us with a bit more analytical than creative brain love to crunch numbers.  While there is certainly a financial realty to every project Peter inspired the audience to consider “what is the cost of ugly and boring cities?”  My artist husband has taught me that there is immense value in beauty and inspiration- if only that it makes the heart sing.
  • We usually get the big stuff right- we need to focus on the small stuff– In my mind this meant really engaging change makers; new people, unique minds, in thinking about our communities and the issues we face.