The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a “Brownfield \braun-fē(Ə)ld\ — The term “Brownfield site” means real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” 

More practical definitions would be:

  • Brownfield sites are abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities available for re-use. Expansion or redevelopment of such a facility may be complicated by real or perceived environmental contaminations. 
  • In the United States city planning jargon, a brownfield site (or simply a brownfield) is land previously used for industrial purposes or certain commercial uses. The land may be contaminated by low concentrations of hazardous waste or pollution, and has the potential to be reused once it is cleaned up.


Generally, brownfield sites exist in a community’s industrial section, on locations with abandoned factories or commercial buildings, or other previously polluting operations.  By emphasizing the revitalization of depressed areas, the reuse of aging buildings, and the development of vacant and abandoned properties, environmental restoration is realized and the tax base is built for the benefit of the community.

Many contaminated brownfield sites sit unused for decades because the cost of cleaning them to safe standards is more than the land would be worth after redevelopment.  A number of innovative financial and remediation techniques have been used in the U.S. in recent years to expedite the cleanup of brownfield sites. For example, some environmental firms have teamed up with insurance companies to underwrite the cleanup of distressed brownfield properties and provide a guaranteed cleanup cost for a specific brownfield property, to limit land developers’ exposure to environmental remediation costs and pollution lawsuits. The environmental firm first performs an extensive investigation of the brownfield site to ensure that the guaranteed cleanup cost is reasonable and they will not wind up with any surprises.

Quick Facts*

  • The USEPA estimates that over 500,000 Brownfields exist in the United States.
  • Redeveloping Brownfield sites could lead to $2.2B in local tax revenue, annually.
  • 1 acre of redeveloped Brownfield corresponds to 4.5 acres of greenfields “saved”.
  • 50,000 completed Brownfield sites may have produced 1.9 million jobs and $703B in investments.


* Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

-Rick Leighton

Rick Leighton is Senior Vice President-Corporate Services at NAI Global.