The natural and built environment has a significant impact on the health of communities. Environmental factors affecting health range from pollutants in the air we breathe, to contaminants in our soil and water, to the presence of environmental constructs such as sidewalks, parks and open spaces that allow for safe transportation options and opportunities for recreational activity. Place matters, and this is why Public Health has such an interest in the environments that surround us.
What’s a Brownfield?
What exactly is a brownfield, you might ask? I’m sure some of us have heard the term thrown around. Does it mean a field full of dirt and dead grass? Well, sort of. Brownfields are properties that typically housed a former industrial or commercial use, where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination.
Brownfields in Portland
Brownfield sites are scattered throughout the Metro area and cover an estimated 6,300 acres of land. Additionally, approximately 50 percent of total and reported brownfields are in or within 1,000 feet of environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands and streams. Brownfields are also three times as likely to be located in underserved communities.
The population of the Portland area is rapidly increasing, and with limiting expansionary factors such as the Urban Growth Boundary, brownfield sites are becoming increasingly valuable as opportunities for infill development. There is a role for local public health to ensure that health and equity are considered when selecting and redeveloping brownfield sites. Public health can advocate for site redevelopments that support the health of the community and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared equitably. The Health Department is eligible for brownfield related planning, assessment and cleanup grants, and is in a unique position to partner with the community in remediation and redevelopment efforts.
Caption: This before and after shot shows the site of the Esperanza Court Apartments. What previously was an underutilized site is now a multi-unit affordable housing complex with office and retail space along Powell Boulevard.
How can brownfield work be beneficial to the community?
Brownfields generally pose two threats to communities- blight and contamination. Blight can discourage economic investment and improvement in a neighborhood, but it is also unhealthy for us. The American Journal of Public Health found that blighted environments significantly raise heart rates in people observing them, and that observing green space has the effect of lowering such. In terms of contamination, brownfields can pose an exposure risk to people through contact with contaminated soil, dust or leachate.
So how can public health work to mitigate these risks? We have several strategies targeting various stages of brownfield redevelopment, ranging from site prioritization for assessment, cleanup, and ultimate reuse.
How we focus our work
Multnomah County Environmental Health Services developed a mapping tool that overlays health, equity and demographic data on known brownfield sites. The purpose of this map is to indicate where the Health Department should focus brownfield activities. Indicators were selected with input from several community based organizations and public health partners to best characterize areas of higher inequity, and therefore higher ‘need’. This tool, currently available in beta (test) form, seeks to tell a story about brownfields and health data, allowing for individuals to explore the geography, health and demographics of their neighborhoods, and even submit potential brownfield sites for the county to research based on local knowledge.
This map shows areas of health inequity- the darker the shade, the greater the existing disparities. Known brownfield sites appear as an overlay, visually illustrating where the county could focus its work.
Temporary use, intentional contracting and workforce development
Often, brownfields are idle or underused due to potential cost of assessment, cleanup and development. Fortunately, there are a number of federal and state programs such as grants, low interest loans and tax incentives (the ability to create brownfield cleanup tax incentives exists in statute, but a program has not yet been launched in Oregon). Sometimes a buyer will purchase a brownfield property that remains inactive while seeking out funding, market research and site planning. Dependent on several aspects of contamination, a site can often be put to beneficial temporary use while larger plans are being developed. One example of this could be a brownfield property owner that allows a community farmers market to set up shop a few times a week, or allow gardening until it’s time to develop the site. Again, allowable uses would be dependent on the type and volume of contamination, and any institutional controls that are present (think vapor barrier and thick clay cap that protects from contamination lying underneath).
The Health Department also seeks to engage in intentional, living wage contracting that gives preference to local (neighborhood level), women and minority owned businesses. When contracting with consultants for technical environmental work, the department values workforce development competencies for youth to engage in professional training around brownfield assessment and cleanup. In many cases, youth can walk away from a summer program with a Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) certification.
Children get hands-on experience testing soil at Cully Park, a former landfill located in Northeast Portland.
End site use
In a perfect world many public health advocates would jump for joy if we could promote the redevelopment of brownfields to affordable housing, parks and green space, living-wage employment centers and other uses that focus on reducing inequity and working toward community benefit. However, because public health by and large lacks the funding to purchase brownfield properties, we seek to develop partnerships and community benefit agreements with developers through joint applications for state and federal assessment and cleanup funding, most of which is not eligible for private business to apply for on its own.
Through these partnerships we can negotiate development that pencils out for the developer, while still providing community benefit- made possible by offsetting assessment and cleanup costs mentioned above. For example, the county might be able to negotiate a percentage of units as affordable if the development is housing, or the community might ask for accessibility (curb ramps), safety (i.e. better lighting), and recreational improvements (such as a small park area) as a portion of the development. Though small, these little ‘wins’ can add up to big improvements for a neighborhood.
Why Depave Cares about Public Health and Brownfields
Depave shares the values of creating healthy, active and beautiful urban community spaces. We are improving areas that are over-paved, but are typically not brownfields. In a brownfield you typically need to cap the soil, so freeing it up like we do wouldn’t be a good idea when there is contamination. However we share a similar value about empowering community members to make their urban spaces healthier for people and the environment.
Want to learn more about how you can get involved in brownfield work in your community? Email Matt.Hoffman@multco.us