New Jersey possesses a proud industrial legacy, but that legacy has come at a cost. Beginning in the 1800s when our society began the transformation from agrarian to industrial, our cities grew around manufacturing. Paterson’s industrial prominence included silk, textiles and railroad locomotives, while Trenton was a hub for iron works, ceramics and rubber. Manufactures in Newark made patent leather, coaches and lace, while those in Camden focused on pork sausage, candles and leather goods.
Chemical processing and oil refineries also found homes in the Garden State. The shorelines of the Hudson River, Newark Bay and other waterways were dotted with shipbuilders and railroad yards. However, in the mid- 20th century, we experienced an economic shift, leading to an industrial exodus. This phenomenon is not unique to New Jersey.
The lingering evidence of the former industrial glory manifested as abandoned buildings and properties contaminated from industrial wastes and building materials. Many of these properties, otherwise known as Brownfields linger today. While the preponderance of brownfield sites exist in our post-industrial cities, our suburban and rural communities are not immune. Not all brownfields are the result of our industrial past. Gas stations, dry cleaners and other commercial uses can become brownfield sites.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a brownfield as a property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. EPA estimates that there are more than 450,000 brownfield sites throughout the country.
Brownfield sites negatively affect our communities. They lower property values, lead to a reduction or loss of tax revenue, limit economic growth, and reduce local employment opportunities. They contribute to neighborhood deterioration and, in many cases perpetuate social inequities. They hold hostage the potential for land uses and services that can contribute to creating more sustainable and resilient communities.
The New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII) has a robust, multifaceted brownfields program focused on helping communities transform their brownfield sites into community assets. We view brownfields as opportunities – to spur economic development, improve social equity, generate jobs, and develop community needed land uses such as housing and recreation.
While there are a multitude of environmental, economic, and social benefits of cleaning up and redeveloping brownfield sites, the process of doing so can be complicated. NJII’s Brownfields Team has worked with hundreds of communities in over 22 states and in doing so, has discovered that although every community is different, they share some common challenges in tackling their brownfield sites.
Most communities do not have the in house knowledge or expertise to advance their sites through the cleanup and redevelopment processes. Many have either no, or limited resources, including funding. These challenges are compounded in communities that are experiencing a weak real estate market. NJII brings tools, strategies, resources, partnerships, subject matter experts, and education to brownfields-challenged communities. It has demonstrated that with guidance, support, and assistance, these communities can successfully transform their brownfield sites into new uses that support community goals and meet community needs.
Colette Santasieri, Ph.D.
Policy and Planning Innovation for Civil Infrastructure and Environment