Field Work

If common sense and economic sense have their way, Canada’s cities are going to look a lot different five years from now. That change is going to target 30,000 polluted industrial properties across the country–so-called ‘brownfields’ characterized by contaminated soil. These sites include derelict warehouses, entire city waterfronts, abandoned mines and former rail yards. It turns out that instead of remaining unsightly blights of the landscape, redevelopment could transform these toxic sites into profitable ventures and unique opportunities for architects.

Typically, brownfields are shrouded in issues of financial risk, legal liability, and environmental ignorance that problematize redevelopment. As a result, many are in development limbo or have been legally orphaned, leaving the country punctuated with sites that potentially pose serious risks to the environment and to human health. There is a prerogative to redress brownfields as a measure of plain responsibility to cleaning up the industrial past. But there’s also a powerful incentive towards building the future on these sites. A recent study by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a government agency, reports that brownfields are an untapped opportunity for revitalizing Canada’s communities and for generating new wealth. “Brownfields are sustainable development because they’re located near the cores of cities,” explains Adrian Pilon, president of the Montral Centre for Excellence in Brownfields Remediation and one of the task force members, “so they’re high-value sites and can use existing infrastructures.” This makes them ecological–and economical–alternatives to the development of greenfield land on the periphery of cities. The study reports that brownfield development could yield up to 7 billion dollars annually in public benefits, including increased tax revenues, lower municipal infrastructure costs, and reduced health risks. Based on the policy recommendations of the report, the new government is expected to spearhead a national brownfields redevelopment program. Architects stand to participate in the windfall by designing appropriate building solutions for these problem spots.

Economics apart, the act of dealing with a brownfield is culturally significant. These sites hold a fascination that’s becoming apparent in art and architecture, where toxic landscapes are gaining a perverse appeal. The romance of post-industrial landscapes is moving from sub- culture to pop-culture, their rough degradation and dangerous nature attracting the post-modern imagination in photography, film, and fashion. In mainstream architecture, a wave of dot-commers demanded brick-and-steel workplaces as a rejection of corporate formality, and industrial-chic lofts are persistently infiltrating former warehouses and factories across the country. The industrial past is a powerful presence, lending an old-style character and solidity to new conceptions. Brownfields bring out the darker reality of this romance, plagued with real contamination resulting from their past uses, and often a shameful presence in the communities that once enlivened through their industries.

Given this complexity, truly sustainable approaches that ensure the long term viability of brownfields must address not only environmental issues, but also the economics and the intricate social histories of these sites. For architects and planners, the challenges begin at the stage of site programming. In the redevelopment of the Angus rail yards site, a 1240-acre brownfield in Montreal’s east end, the site’s use as CP Rail’s repair shops less than a decade ago informed the choice of a mixed residential-industrial zoning. “Angus has been a monument of industrial development,” says Pierre St. Cyr, the urban planner hired by CP to direct the project, “that was its identity.” Industrial zoning responded to a demand for local employment and a 40% quota of social housing addressed social sustainability for a low-income population.

The 400 metre-long locomotive construction shop dominated the former site. “We knew the building had value, even though it was not designated a heritage landmark,” St. Cyr says, explaining the decision to retain the massive loco-shops. Eventually divided into three sections unified by the original brick faade, the loco-shops’ various fates read like an architectural options catalogue. The eastern third has been developed as a super Loblaws, with a clean, warehouse-style interior, presided upon by a massive overhead crane. The middle third has been left as a skeleton, its propped-up walls framing an open-roofed parking area. In the final section, difica architects restored the building to retain its industrial feel. In a rare case of adapting the program to the character of the space, they developed an industrial mall mixing fabrication with office spaces, targeting small industries involved in environmental remediation. In addition to recycling much of the existing building, the space was engineered to be heated and cooled passively and performs to high environmental standards. A green approach was taken in the loco-shops because it was commensurate with the values of social and economic sustainability embraced elsewhere on the Angus site. The same approach was applied to edifica’s planning of the industrial zone as a pedestrian-friendly area. Their construction of a series of new industrial buildings worked in the same spirit, reusing materials recuperated from elsewhere on the site and making architectural choices reflecting the sustainability to which Angus aspired.

Dealing with the contaminated ground itself at Angus included the excavation and removal of contaminated soils to a contained landfill–a common procedure known as “dig and dump.” Traditionally, dig and dump has been the only approach able to meet the stringent clean-up criteria for residential occupancies. However, there’s an increasing realization among researchers, planners, and architects that this process merely displaces the problem of pollution rather than solving it. New technologies for remediating, rather than dumping, contaminated soil are being developed with the backing of the National Research Council (NRC) and an offspring organization initiated by Pilon at the Montral Centre for Excellence in Brownfields Remediation (MCEBR). “New technologies need to perform, but also they need to gain confidence from stakeholders,” he says, explaining the MCEBR’s mandate to support technology demonstration projects. These technologies vary from on-site phytoremediation (using plants to metabolize organic contaminants) to off-site bioremediation (using bacteria to digest chemicals), to bioslurping techniques that address groundwater or below-slab contamination.

The use of natural processes holds special appeal for designers, as they directly impact the aesthetic of the landscape. Natural regeneration of industrial landscapes is a strategy embraced by the Hough Group of Toronto, led by landscape architect and York University professor Michael Hough. In the Don Valley Brickworks, a series of filtration ponds carpet the former brick quarry. Ecosystems within this series of ponds act to control and remediate urban storm water flowing towards the Don River, generating a naturalized landscape in the process. In their proposed redevelopment of Arsenal Lands Park, a brownfield bordering between Toronto and Mississauga, the Hough Group plans to use a ‘capping’ process to contain contaminated earth while creating landforms, and to create key plantings that act by phytoremediation to decontaminate the soil. Phytoremediation is still a relatively experimental procedure for building sites, and is a long-term process–especially relative to the expediency of dig & dump. However, the process appeals to sustainable thinkers, with plants acting to simultaneously cleanse the soil, reduce greenhouse gases, and provide landscaping. The NRC is currently piloting a project for phytoremediation plots bordering on transportation corridors, removing toxins from these currently idle sites in anticipation of future

The processes of decontamination can also take bolder forms, giving brownfields a distinct identity. Julie Bargmann’s Virginia-based studio, D.I.R.T., believes in remediating toxic landscapes in a way that uses artistic clarity to confront and reveal their industrial past. In Testing the Waters, a former coal mine in Vintondale, Pensylvania, is turned into a park that decontaminates acid mine drainage through a series of filtering basins. The process gains a physical presence in the Litmus garden, where native plantings range in colour from acidic orange to alkaline blue to illustrate different stages of treatment. In the Ravenswood Quarry winery in Sonoma, California, D.I.R.T. takes a ‘no sissy landscapes’ approach to the transformation of the closing blue basalt quarry. Rocks, concrete, steel, and productive plants dominate the landscaping of the winery, built on a plinth with gardens overlooking the adjacent gravel pit. The theme of red wine and blue gravel production pervade the site, expressing and exposing its industrial history.

Though they remain problematic, polluted terrains, brownfields are also sites with tremendous design potential. Laden with rich historic and social identities, old industrial buildings, tricky ground conditions, and challenging urban situations, they are places of great opportunity for the right vision. Because of their complex nature, designing on brownfields necessitates a collaborative approach–one that involves researchers, planners, architects, landscape architects, politicians, and the communities themselves. “It takes a long time before we make big changes,” acknowledges Pilon, who has been involved with brownfields for twenty years and has recently been seeing the issue gain momentum. “If we don’t give up, we will get there.” His commitment includes discussing a sustainability plan for Montreal, preparing to meet with the National Round Table group, and presenting at a sustainable communities conference with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Each group reunites stakeholders to talk about issues of sustainability and brownfield development–with its anticipated environmental, economic, and social benefits benefits and may be the key to synthesizing their interests with a common cause. Architects could constitute an important voice giving form to these visions as the design challenges for brownfields take the stage for sustainability.

Elsa Lam is a graduate architect and writer based in Montreal. She can be contacted at The site is a Canadian resource for brownfields remediation technologies, and includes a database of case studies. The U.S. EPA provides general resources on brownfields at and technical resources at The NRTEE report, “A National Brownfields Redevelopment Strategy,” is available at