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Sun, 22 Oct 2006
How zealous should governments be to put development on brownfields, and who should pay for the cost of rehabilitating the sites?
In an article in Spiked Online, James Woudhuysen talks about "The dangers of Brownfield Brutalism" in a reference to Britain exceeding targets for how much of new housing is going on brownfield sites. Get this, in England the target was that by 2008, 60% of new homes should be brownfield, but by 2006, 74% was on brownfield. Average densities of new homes have gone up from 25 dwellings per hectare in 1997 to 42 now.
While it is possible to have a perfectly nice community at that density, and I myself live in a modest single family home in a neighbourhood with even higher density, there is a disturbing tendency to build very high densities on brownfields.
It should be the case that whoever contaminated the site should pay for the cleanup. But the reality is that someone else often has to foot that bill. Rehabilitating and developing brownfields is a public good. Development on serviced and relatively accessible land reduces the cost of delivering public services to the population, and removing contaminants on sites means they are less likely to affect surrounding residents in the future.
Local governments recognize this, but hesitate to pick up the bill themselves. The economic system goes part of the way by reducing the cost of contaminated land, but apparently not far enough for the difference in price to pay for the cleanup. Someone should talk to whoever is in charge of economics to see about this. Maybe negative land prices would do it, but again, economics... Instead, local governments use a currency that is apparently free: zoning regulations. By allowing developers to build at higher densities than would have been found appropriate otherwise, developers can buy the land at one value, and have its value increased through zoning, in exchange for paying for something that is a public good, essentially writing a cheque to a cleanup firm as part of a deal for preferential legislative treatment.
I am very uncomfortable with governments putting urban planning up for sale. It would be better to have public funds pay for public goods, to have developers decide for themselves how much to pay for land and what to build within the law, and to have urban planning decisions made on the basis of what is best for the city and the community. If one community loses the right to be treated like other communities just because they live near a brownfied, then you have backroom deals involving transfer of costs from one party to another. I have seen some very nice brownfield plans and some terrible ones with excessive density for the location in the form of high-rise or low-rise brutalism, but the very idea that developers must be compensated in kind for having paid more than the contaminated land is worth to them is wrong.
Everyone involved can say that they are environmentalists and doing the right thing, but when urban planning is up for sale it loses legitimacy.