Land recycling

Land recycling is the reuse of abandoned, vacant, or underused properties for redevelopment or repurposing.

Land recycling aims to ensure the reuse of developed land as part of: new developments; cleaning up contaminated properties; reuse and/or making use of used land surrounded by development or nearby infrastructure. End-uses from land recycling may include: mixed-use, residential, commercial, or industrial developments; and/or public open space such as urban open space use by urban parks, community gardens; or larger open space reserves such as regional parks.

Since many abandoned and underutilized properties lie within economically distressed and disadvantaged communities, land recycling often benefits and stimulates re-investment in historically under-served areas. The real or perceived presence of xenobiotic hazardous substances from historical previous uses or in situ land pollution, causing soil contamination and groundwater pollution, may complicate the redevelopment of such properties. Such environmentally distressed properties, with site cleanup and mitigation considerations, are commonly referred to as brownfields.


Other commonly used terms can relate to or serve as synonyms of land recycling:


The US Government Accountability Office estimates that there are over 450,000 brownfields and almost 15 million acres (61,000 km2) of potentially contaminated properties across the United States.[1] These sites sit idle and neglected, serving as desolate eyesores within their communities. By putting these barren infill sites to use, land recycling revitalizes communities, promotes sustainable development, and preserves precious resources. The social, economic, environmental, and other benefits of land recycling include:

Social and economic revitalization

Land recycling helps clean up and revitalize inner cities by returning abandoned, idle, or underused sites to productive use, bolstering community spirit, creating jobs and boosting local tax-revenues.

The re-use of land revitalizes communities and renews economic activity, particularly in under-served urban areas. Abandoned, idled, and vacant properties often lie in former industrial and commercial areas, typically in urban and historically disadvantaged areas. These sites can be community eyesores, negatively impacting social and economic development, and often human and environmental health. The failure to redevelop brownfields in particular translates into potentially more exposure to toxics and the loss of economic and housing benefits that can come from appropriate redevelopment.

By putting these properties to new and productive use, land recycling encourages growth of businesses and services in such areas, helping to break up concentrations of poverty, creating jobs, and stimulating additional private investment and local tax-revenue. An abandoned, well-situated, factory site can be cleaned up and redeveloped into a much-needed mixed-use development with a grocery store, senior housing, and access to public transportation. The addition of neighborhood-serving retail, affordable housing, or a clean public park in a disadvantaged community can boost local spirit and improve overall quality of life.


Sustainability involves meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Land recycling expresses an inherently sustainable idea, based on the same common-sense as recycling an aluminum can. Like other natural resources, land represents a shared investment that should be reused and recycled, rather than consumed and abandoned after use. Recycling paper saves trees, reusing land saves land.

By encouraging the recycling rather than the consumption of land, land recycling promotes smart growth and responsible, sustainable patterns of development. A 2001 study by George Washington University shows that for every acre of brownfield redeveloped, 4.5 acres (18,000 m2) of undeveloped land is conserved. Public Policies and Private Decisions Affecting the Redevelopment of Brownfields: An Analysis of Critical Factors, Relative Weights and Areal Differentials. As most brownfields and other abandoned sites are typically situated in urban areas, they tap into existing nearby infrastructure, limiting the need to build new roads, gridlines, and amenities, thereby reducing further land consumption. Each infill development prevents sprawl into open space, forests and agricultural land, preserving acres of undeveloped land.

An alternative to sprawl

Land recycling increases density in urban areas, by reducing urban sprawl and unplanned, low-density, automobile-dependent developments.

Sprawl development scatters housing, public transit, jobs and other amenities farther apart, demanding more frequent use of cars for travel. The increase in vehicle-miles traveled (VMTs) produces a range of health and environmental problems, including air pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions, and increased incidence of traffic jams and asthma. This results in a lower quality of life for residents, ever-increasing commute times, and the health implications of smog.

By moving new jobs, economic opportunities and community amenities farther from established populations, sprawl development can cripple once-thriving cities. This trend takes a toll on the socio-economic health of urban communities as growth retreats from the urban center.

Rather than take advantage of existing infrastructure such as roads, public transit, and public works, building sprawl projects abandons these resources and demands further consumption of land and resources.

Land recycling offers an intelligent alternative to sprawl development. It reuses vital infrastructure and public resources and creates compact, full-service neighborhoods that reduce vehicle use and carbon dependence. Rebuilding in urban neighborhoods generates reinvestment in vibrant economic and cultural centers, rather than drawing away much-needed resources. Compact, urban development through land recycling is essential to sustainable development and is key to managing rapid population growth across the United States and beyond. As daily commute times decrease, the general quality of life improves as residents have more time to enjoy the world around them.

Directing development to urban cores

Redirecting population growth and growth of businesses to already urbanized areas is integral to fostering sustainable communities. Applying sustainable principles to land use and growth management requires that growth be redirected from scattered fringe areas back to our urban cores, where people, services and infrastructure already exist. Building up our urban areas positively increases population density, providing the critical mass to support local services from coffee shops to grocery stores, public transit to libraries and symphony halls. Land recycling provides opportunities for urban renewal and to build truly livable communities: efficient, compact, vibrant urban neighborhoods integrated with public transit systems, which offer a mix of uses as well as affordable housing.

Addressing climate change

Land recycling effectively curbs greenhouse-gas emissions by encouraging smart, compact growth that reduces vehicle dependence. Redevelopment within an urban core reduces commuting distances and therefore average vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) by creating residential, office, and other amenities within close proximity. Since transportation alone accounts for a third of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted in the United States, land recycling offers a key tool in any fight against climate change. A recent Urban Land Institute study found that compact urban developments reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) by 20 to 40 percent [2] because users are closer to amenities and can more easily rely on public transportation. Smart urban planning is therefore crucial to maximizing energy savings and overall reduction of greenhouse gases.

As of 2009 the green movement has started to emphasize the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, a certification system that rewards the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings. LEED certification signifies incorporation of smart building design and technology to reduce energy use and minimize waste. However, even if a building is energy-efficient, the energy required to travel to and from a LEED certified site may well exceed the energy saved through energy-efficient features. LEED certified buildings and other developments best benefit climate change when they reuse infill sites and access existing resources.


While land recycling has great economic and environmental benefits, without the right tools, skills, and knowledge, reusing land can produce certain challenges. Obstacles to redevelopment may include lack of funding and increased scrutiny. These can particularly impede projects on brownfields, which carry the stigma of contamination. Because of these concerns, the perceived ease of developing on open land, or greenfields, remains alluring to many. Factors that hinder land recycling include:

  • market factors
  • environmental-liability risks
  • uncertainty and cost
  • complicated/confusing regulatory requirements
  • difficulty in obtaining project financing
  • the lure of greenfields

Market factors

As the saying goes, in real estate only three things matter: location, location, location. Because idled and underused infill sites are often located in distressed urban areas concerns arise about crime, safety, and access to quality education and services. These and other market factors frequently pull development to open land near traditionally desirable communities and away from urban infill sites.

Greenfields competition

Brownfields and infill sites must compete with attractive, undeveloped suburban and rural land, also called greenfield land. When considering the real or perceived risks and costs of land recycling, a greenfield development may seem more economically sensible as the immediate costs are typically less than developing on an infill or brownfield site. However, it is important to consider the long-term economic gain of land recycling and the added social and environmental rewards of sustainable development.


As defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency, a brownfield site is “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”. In other words, brownfield sites comprise abandoned, idled, or underused industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.

Uncertainty and costs

Assessing whether or not a site is contaminated can be a costly process that deters land reuse. Potential purchasers are often unwilling or unable to risk an investment in a site assessment for a property that may require cleanup they cannot afford. Even if a site has been purchased, concerns over cleanup costs may further stall redevelopment. Uncertainty over time, cost or a high price for cleanup leaves many brownfield sites in development limbo.

Project financing

Obtaining private front-end financing for brownfield cleanup can be a difficult process[3]. Since financing is more readably available for development on greenfields, infill and brownfield sites are often passed over.

Environmental-liability risks

Although recent changes in some country's federal laws provide some liability relief to new purchasers of contaminated properties, the law remains very complex and many state laws still have strict liability covering real property. Thus, in many cases, any current or past property owner can potentially be legally and financially liable regardless of who is responsible for contamination. This liability web continues to throw a chill on many brownfield projects even in the presence of regulatory reforms designed to encourage redevelopment. A common belief among many brownfield owners is that it is less risky and cheaper to abandon or “mothball” a facility than to conduct a site assessment that could trigger large cleanup costs and potential liability.

Regulatory requirements

The potentially complex process of successfully redeveloping an infill site, particularly a brownfield, can challenge land recycling interest and proposals. Understanding and complying with federal, state, and local legal and regulatory requirements can be daunting for some property owners and developers. Guidance from legal specialists and environmental cleanup consultants is often needed to design, develop, and guide a project through the process of regulatory requirements and permitting approvals.

See also


  1. Brownfield Redevelopment: Stakeholders Report That EPA's Program Helps to Redevelop Sites, but Additional Measures Could Complement Agency Efforts GAO-05-94; December 2, 2004
  2. Urban Land Institute. Growing Cooler: The Evidence of Urban Development and Climate Change. Available at "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-12-24. Retrieved 2014-04-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. Wolf, Michael Allan (1997–1998). "Dangerous Crossing: State Brownfields Recycling and Federal Enterprise Zoning". Fordham Environmental Law Journal. 9: 495.CS1 maint: date format (link)
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