Transforming urban brownfields into sustainable neighborhoods

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The authors at Luterbach-Attisholz (SO), a Swiss site presented in their book. ©

The authors at Luterbach-Attisholz (SO), a Swiss site presented in their book. © A. Herzog/EPFL

Urban brownfields represent a major challenge to sustainable transition that remains difficult to overcome. A new reference work, based on over ten years of research carried out at EPFL, aims to outline the processes involved in transforming urban brownfields into sustainable neighborhoods. 

Urban brownfields are derelict areas that are diverse in origin; they include military barracks and parade grounds, ports, decommissioned nuclear power plants and refineries, and railway, industrial and commercial wastelands. They present specific challenges when it comes to transforming them into sustainable neighborhoods. Assuming a medium scenario of population density, Switzerland’s urban brownfields could theoretically accommodate around 600,000 new residents.

However, regenerating these areas according to 21st century sustainability standards can pose real problems - many issues need to be addressed, such as soil pollution, impermeable surfaces, inadequate accessibility, costly demolitions, unattractive neighborhoods, derelict infrastructure, multiple stakeholders and divergent opinions.

Transforming these difficult areas into opportunity is what EPFL’s Laboratory of Architecture and Sustainable Technologies (LAST) intends to do. The Laboratory has published a reference work aimed at the architects, town planners, engineers and policymakers involved in this type of project. "Neighborhoods in transition. Brownfield Regeneration in European Metropolitan Areas" is part of The Urban Book Series and is based on the research and PhD theses of Sophie Lufkin and Martine Laprise, scientists at LAST, and of Emmanuel Rey, head of LAST and a specialist in the transition to sustainable architecture.

Avoiding monotony and banality

"We’ve been aware of the potential of urban brownfields since the 2000s, but incorporating sustainability into the regeneration process remains a major challenge," says Lufkin. Rey adds that "brownfields have a part to play in tackling housing shortages in urban areas." For him, turning these areas into new neighborhoods is a challenge for the future of the built environment. "Transforming existing buildings and developing new public spaces is one way to preserve the soul of these peripheral areas," he says. "It’s about highlighting their individuality and ensuring they do not become monotonous, banal suburbs."

The LAST book is divided into two parts. Following a theoretical introduction, the researchers explain what tools are needed to manage projects well and ensure they run smoothly. "From a Swiss and European point of view, we noticed that intentions were often good at the start of a brownfield transformation, but that enthusiasm for sustainability got slightly lost over time," says Rey. In order to avoid this, the researchers have developed a system of indicators. "Our system aims to strengthen both the commitment towards and operational monitoring of sustainability targets for these projects. We also provided reference values based on case studies carried out in Switzerland, France and Belgium. These can be used to evaluate whether a project is more ambitious than current practice," adds Laprise.

Over fifty indicators The indicators cover environmental, economic and sociocultural aspects and are grouped into three categories: context, project and governance. Transforming neighborhoods is a huge undertaking, not least because of the need to: be carbon neutral; favor green transportation methods; ensure there is a good-quality public transport available; limit traffic noise during the day and night; favor biodiversity and the ecological management of rainwater; provide easy access to public and landscaped spaces; welcome a diversity of people with a range of incomes; provide for a variety of functions, such as housing, offices, services, leisure activities and stores; give the community a chance to participate in the transformation project; and make sure amenities such as schools and childcare centers are nearby.

Our idea wasn’t to create a new certification label for sustainable neighborhoods. The purpose of our system of indicators isn’t to promote such projects to the outside world, but rather to give the people working on them a tool they can use to steer their projects in a sustainable direction

Overall, the researchers selected around 50 indicators that should be monitored and evaluated regularly. "Our idea wasn’t to create a new certification label for sustainable neighborhoods. The purpose of our indicator system isn’t to promote such projects to the outside world, but rather to give the people working on them a tool they can use to steer their projects in a sustainable direction," says Rey.

In the interests of open science, the authors were keen to ensure that all their text and images were made freely available.

References

Emmanuel Rey, Martine Laprise, Sophie Lufkin, "Neighborhoods in transition. Brownfield Regeneration in European Metropolitan Areas", The Urban Book Series, Springer, Octobre 2021. 


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