It is estimated that there are over 450,000 brownfields and almost 15 million acres of potentially contaminated properties across the United States.
These sites sit idle and neglected, serving as desolate eyesores within their communities. By putting these barren infill sites to use, land recycling revitalizes our communities, promotes sustainable development, and preserves precious resources. The social, economic, environmental, and other benefits of land recycling include:
By putting these properties to new and productive use, land recycling encourages growth of businesses and services in such areas, helping to break up concentrations of poverty, creating jobs, and stimulating additional private investment and local tax revenue. An abandoned, well-situated, factory site can be cleaned up and redeveloped into a much-needed mixed-use development with a grocery store, senior housing, and access to public transportation. The addition of neighborhood-serving retail, affordable housing, or a clean public park in a disadvantaged community can boost local spirit and improve overall quality of life.
Land recycling is an inherently sustainable idea, based on the same common sense as recycling an aluminum can. Like other natural resources, land represents a shared investment that should be reused and recycled, rather than consumed and abandoned after use. Recycling paper saves trees, reusing land saves land.
By encouraging the recycling rather than the consumption of land, land recycling promotes smart growth and responsible, sustainable patterns of development. Studies show that for every acre of brownfield redeveloped, 4.5 acres of undeveloped land is conserved. As most brownfields and other abandoned sites are typically situated in urban areas, they tap into existing nearby infrastructure, limiting the need to build new roads, gridlines, and amenities, thereby reducing further land consumption. Each infill development prevents sprawl into open space, forests and agricultural land, preserving acres of undeveloped land.
In sprawl development, housing, public transit, jobs and other amenities are scattered farther apart, demanding more frequent use of cars for travel. The increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) produces a range of health and environmental problems, including air pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions, and increased incidence of traffic jams and asthma. This results in a lower quality of life for residents, ever-increasing commute times, and the health implications of smog.
By moving new jobs, economic opportunities and community amenities farther from established populations, sprawl development can cripple once thriving cities. This trend takes a toll on the socio-economic health of urban communities as growth retreats from the urban center.
Rather than take advantage of existing infrastructure such as roads, public transit, and public works, building sprawl projects abandons these resources and demands further consumption of land and resources.
Land recycling is an intelligent alternative to sprawl development. It reuses vital infrastructure and public resources and creates compact, full-service neighborhoods that reduce vehicle use and carbon dependence. Rebuilding in urban neighborhoods generates reinvestment in vibrant economic and cultural centers, rather than drawing away much-needed resources. Compact, urban development through land recycling is essential to sustainable development and is key to managing rapid population growth across the United States and beyond. As daily commute times decrease, the general quality of life improves as residents have more time to enjoy the world around them.
Applying sustainable principles to land use and growth management requires that growth be redirected from scattered fringe areas back to our urban cores, where people, services and infrastructure already exist. Building up our urban areas positively increases population density, providing the critical mass to support local services from coffee shops to grocery stores, public transit to libraries and symphony halls. Land recycling provides opportunities for urban renewal and to build truly livable communities: efficient, compact, vibrant urban neighborhoods integrated with public transit systems, which offer a mix of uses as well as affordable housing.
Redevelopment within an urban core reduces commuting distances and therefore average vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) by creating residential, office, and other amenities within close proximity. Since transportation alone accounts for a third of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted in the United States, land recycling is a key tool in the fight against climate change. Studies show that compact urban development, as an alternative to sprawl, could reduce VMTs by an average of 30%. Smart urban planning is therefore crucial to maximizing energy savings and overall reduction of greenhouse gases.
LEED certified buildings and other developments best benefit climate change when they reuse infill sites and access existing resources.
A recent focus of the green movement is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, a certification system that rewards the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. LEED certification signifies incorporation of smart building design and technology to reduce energy use and minimize waste. However, even if a building is energy-efficient, the energy required to travel to and from a LEED certified site may well exceed the energy saved through energy-efficient features. A project’s location and its relation to the urban center should be considered first and foremost in achieving truly sustainable design.
According to research, traditional urban development can have a greater impact than a LEED certified suburban development in mitigating waste and the release of GHGs. Studies show that a green suburban development results in 15% more total expended energy compared to a traditional urban development of comparable size. This stems from the fact that the suburban development’s energy savings gained through green building features are overcome by a three-fold increase in transportation-related energy use. That increase bumps to four-fold when comparing the same LEED suburban development to an average urban LEED development, with an overall energy expenditure increase of 84%.
Green-conscious suburban development is still sprawl development, despite LEED certification for the project or building. LEED certified buildings and other developments are more energy-efficient and further benefit climate change when they recycle land and access existing resources.