Regeneration of disused urban land

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A considerable percentage of land cover in most contemporary cities lies vacant or in deep neglect, often leading to social and economic problems. These areas are often brownfield sites or post-industrial areas, whose regeneration to improve urban biodiversity and provide additional ecosystem services[1] can lead to a more ecologically sound built environment and improvement of amenities and contact with nature for local communities who have faced, at times, decades of social neglect and social fragmentation.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Regeneration of disused urban space focuses on sustainable, socially and economically beneficial, remediation and revitalization of disused urban spaces such as landfills and other brownfield sites. This remediation is done to create productive green infrastructure through: Nature-based solutions, co-creation, and sustainable business models (proGIreg) and a ‘Brownfield Navigator’ decision support tool (HOMBRE). All these measures follow the same aim: to make better social, economic, and environmental use of these spaces, but their methods are different (i.e. Nature-based solutions (NBS) vs a strategic decision-making tool). Both projects involve multiple stakeholders, including: local citizens, governments, businesses, NGOs and universities, urban planners.

ProGIreg[2] (Green Cities for Climate and Water Resilience, Sustainable Economic Growth, Healthy Citizens and Environments, 2018 - 2023) is exploring the use of Carbon-neutral methods to restore soil fertility and involves combining the poor quality soil with compost from organic waste and biotic compounds. At the heart of the HOMBRE[3] (Holistic Management of Brownfield Regeneration, 2010 - 2014) project, for exmaple, was the ambition to create a paradigm shift towards a ‘Zero Brownfields’ approach, where Brownfields become areas of opportunity that deliver useful services for society, instead of derelict areas that are considered useless. In this context, new synergies between different types of services are brought into consideration, in order to leverage change. The “Zero Brownfields” perspective was an elaboration of a circular land management framework that was previously developed (by an earlier EU project; CircUse[4] -Managing land use for the benefit of all). This perspective promotes sustainable urban development by limiting the use of new green spaces and by reusing previously used or underused land. The territorial cooperation often involved means that different regions, in different countries, could pilot different aspects of sustainable land use, using an approach based on the motto: “avoid – recycle – compensate”.

Shapes, sizes and applications

Regeneration of disused urban spaces takes many forms, but brownfield development is central to the approach. Brownfield development is a process of regeneration for land that has become abandoned, derelict, or contaminated after its previous use (e.g. industry, unused large-scale unused transportation infrastructure). According to Grimski and Ferber (2001)[5], in the 1980s, the UK, France and Germany were forerunners in initiatives for derelict land recycling programmes. These programmes aimed at reducing the use of greenfield sites, preserving architectural heritage, general urban renewal, employment creation and improved environmental quality. Structural (economic) policy remains dominant in brownfield remediation programmes, but ecological objectives are becoming more prominent. Other than brownfield regeneration, different NBS tools are used both within and in addition to brownfield regeneration. In general, NBS used in regeneration is a relatively developed/mature approach which has been studied and applied in widespread contexts. The term “NBS” has been used only since the 2000s. Meanwhile, brownfield remediation is also a mature practice, but the use of HOMBRE’s Brownfield Navigator tool may be still more experimental and not wide spread. The NBS for remediation are still being tested in proGIreg (project in progress), and the brownfield navigator seems to have gotten some degree of attention and use. The largest limitation, in general, is the large remediation costs that create a barrier to undertaking this approach. Remediation (decontamination and regeneration) is extremely costly, and the initial land value is usually very low. The level of transferability for this approach is high and applies to all urban areas with disused spaces, particularly post-industrial urban areas. Though high remediation cost requires a context which financially supports the approach. I.e. Renaturation of the post-industrial Ruhr region is extremely costly, and is financed by industry foundations and the government etc. And while the general approach is highly transferable, the specific regeneration solutions are strongly context-dependent.

ProGIreg is active since 2018 in urban areas that lack quality green spaces and suffer from social and economic disadvantages, inequality and related crime and security problems. It is implementing 8 types of Nature-based solutions (NBS) using the Living Labs approach developed with and by local communities in four front-runner cities. Their “New regenerated soil” approach is being tested in 2 cities; Turin, Italy and Ningbo, China. Local authorities in Turin have identified the need for additional arable soil for new green spaces and have decided to use the Sangone Park for producing and testing regenerated soil. This soil was ideal for urban forestry and the aim is to make the regenerated soil available for use in public green spaces throughout the city. In Ningbo sediments from the urban lake are being used as fertilizer for the regeneration of soil for an area of 20 hectares. HOMBRE developed the framework and strategy for circular land management into the HOMBRE Zero Brownfield Framework. This assessed various brownfield case studies of varying scales located in different parts of Europe. From their analysis, guidelines were developed and a technical tool created to assist stakeholders and cities: The Brownfield Navigator (BFN), an “interactive tool with alternatives and out-of-the-box solutions for regeneration sites is available to anybody working on regeneration plans”.[6] The brownfield case studies assessed included rural and urban areas with previous or ongoing industrial or mining uses(in Germany, Italy, UK, Poland and Romania).

While both Leipzig and Zagreb have many activists/citizens who want to create urban gardening or cultural projects on brownfield sites, the two local governments seem to deal with the drive for regeneration in completely different ways.

In Leipzig's "Glassfabrik", a formerly state-owned company in the DDR, a collective of cultural workers and new property owners wants to create a space for artistic and academic activities which is accessible for everyone. This includes urban gardening areas, spaces for painting and spraying and spaces for experimentation (could be e.g repairing electronic devices). The imagined new center shall become a meeting space for citizens to engage actively with each other and most importantly also learn about big questions concerning the relationship of the "global" and the "local". This is done in cooperation with an international network of activists, experts and institutions. The "Glassfabrik" is furthermore actively developed in a way that pays respect to the cultural and industrial heritage of the fabric, for example via not tearing down whole buildings or teaching about the history of the place. Leipzig's municipal government supports the center and is integral to its success. [7]

The situation in Zagreb seems to be completely different. An example was given of the renovation of a central train station in the city centre in Zagreb. Several artists, citizens and sociologists are trying to work on the regeneration of the space through exhibitions, blog writings and co-visioning what to do with the space in the future. The municipal government seems apprehensive of the citizens' efforts - not financing potential solutions and even actively trying to hinder activists from accessing the space e.g via fences around the area. According to one Arena participant, the government in Croatia is not keen on activist movements actively participating in city development and creating spaces like cultural centers or urban gardening projects. Furthemore, in contrast to many post-industrial German cities, it seems that regenerating disused urban land is not done through drawing on industrial heritage, but rather through completely new apartments or malls are built on the old spaces which have no connection to its history.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Regenerating of disused urban land can be done in purely urban contexts (e.g. post-industrial areas) or in brownfields that can transcend urban/rural boundaries. Whereas HOMBRE is concerned with all aspects of Brownfield sites and strategies to eliminate them in the future, ProGIreg is active in post-industrial urban areas suffering from social and economic disadvantages, inequality and related crime and security problems. Whereas soil and land regeneration can benefit surrounding neighbourhoods by creating more, safer and more accessible green/blue areas, not all such projects have included questions of justice in their design. One way in which some projects (e.g. ProGIreg) have inserted justice in their objectives, is by selecting, disadvantaged areas to work in and by seeking to activate citizen involvement in regeneration of urban areas of varying scales through Co-design, involving all relevant stakeholders from the very start of the project and engaging them as equal co-creators.

Regarding sustainability and the remediating of brownfield sites that are contaminated/heavily damaged, outcomes may not necessarily be ecologically sustainable if the remediation is aimed at intensive human recreational use such as new housing developments or business parks. While tackling urban sprawl to ensure a more sustainable built environment, opportunities for new strategies now exist; encouraging urban gardening, community gardens and urban farming, areas for renewable energy generation (non-food biomass production), mitigation of heat island effects and the use of tree planting to improve urban air quality (filtering and retaining air particles and contaminants generated by traffic and industry) while also providing habitat for migrating birds and other species to increase biodiversity. The ProGIreg project works on soil regeneration, as one approach to sustainability, seeking to identify and improve areas in cities through NBS including: biodiversity, the carbon cycle, soil consumption and use of natural resources in urban environments, citizen involvement, education and empowerment. Citizen science and active citizen participation also include sustainable education and nature appreciation. Regeneration of these spaces does not necessarily increase justice, since it depends on the intended use of the spaces afterwards. However, disused areas may be more frequently found in lower-income/less desirable areas and therefore their restoration could contribute to distributional justice (e.g. green space provision). Yet, very intensive biomass production could also involve burdens for rather poor residents locally, to the benefit of wealthy users or investors elsewhere. The process of regeneration may enhance procedural justice, like in the co-creation aspect of the proGIreg project.

Narrative of change

The approach cluster aims to make use of the potential social, environmental, and economic benefits of disused (toxic, damaged) land in urban areas. The process creates this change through co-creation between many stakeholders and smart tools and NBS that assess each situation in order to be effective and efficient in remediation efforts.

Transformative potential

Regeneration projects usually try to overcome power relations that may have blocked the usage of unused land after being dismissed. They usually do not interfere with the power relations that led to the damaging of the land in the first place. However, regeneration initiatives may help indirectly with problematizing the damaging practice and also challenge the way in which disused land is viewed. This may increase transparency and accountability in the relation between previous owners and users of the land with government regulators and future user groups. More likely, however, government-funded redevelopment may distract from responsibility for past damages. Since the impact of regeneration initiatives is confined to specific sites, (rather than the socio-economic system on a larger scale), we consider its transformative potential to be rather limited. While HOMBRE’s approach has a limited transformative potential, ProGIreg’s attempt to make urban transformation work with and for citizens indicates that a high transformative potential might be achieved. ProGIreg’s report[8] from the end of 2018 had a considerable amount of exploration into levels of citizen engagement and what full empowerment could mean.

Specific solutions or ways of regenerating disused urban land may often not be transferable across contexts. This seems to be especially important across Western and Eastern European contexts where a perceived time lag between solutions becomes apparent. A participant of arena#1 in Rotterdam mentioned that city developments that happened in Western Europe are now happening delayed in Eastern Europe with officials making the same mistakes. As an example she mentioned a potential construction bubble in Croatia that existed in Western Europe 10-30 years ago, but has reached Croatia delayed because of the war in the 90s. Learning across different contexts seems to be an additional challenge here. Furthermore, bottom-up movements seem to rely on some sort of institutional support which highlights the importance of the local government in those processes.

Illustration of approach

An example of urban space regeneration is the regeneration of Dortmund[9] , Germany’s industrial and landfill regions around the Emscher River (Huckarde district) using NBS (pollinator diversity, aquaponics, accessible green corridors, community urban farms and gardens, leisure activities and renewable energy projects).

This effort includes many actors working collaboratively, including: the City of Dortmund, RWTH Aachen University, Die Urbanisten (local NGO), ICLEI, a network of 7 other cities (involved in the proGIreg project), urban design companies, and other NGOs focused on social considerations of the new developments (to ensure they improve citizens’ quality of life). In this effort, living labs have been used to strive for community-led solutions. Regarding regeneration efforts in the Dortmund region as a whole, the Foundation for Industrial Heritage (which is financially supported by the RAG-Stiftung) and the Emschergenossenschaft are also heavily involved in regeneration of Dortmund’s disused urban spaces from its historical industrial use. The regions’ regeneration activities have social equality considerations at their core. Therefore, there is a strong connection here between urban, sustainability, and justice in this case. All of the initiatives are in urban spaces, aimed at renaturating the contaminated sites, and making them accessible to the community in efforts to increase quality of life and social cohesion in a context of racial and economic tensions. Regarding (limits to) transferability, this approach is enabled in the Dortmund case partly due to the financial support enabled by a governance system that holds industry responsible for regeneration (German law requires industrial firms to decontaminate and decommission their unused sites), and a strong network of different actors working towards the same goal. Another enabling contextual factor is the population density and need for urban green space and green infrastructure in the Ruhr region, which provides motivation for the regeneration.