By John C. Chambers
Having a vision to executive best-practices Community Participation in Brownfield Redevelopment is often a very elusive and unrequited undertaking: Community members crave the input and involvement but are shut out of the process.
“Brownfields: A Comprehensive Guide to Redeveloping Contaminated Property, Third Edition,” written by Todd S. Davis and Scott A. Sherman includes a chapter, written by John C. Chambers, that discusses the call for active community involvement as executed by U.S. EPA's Brownfield Initiative:
Brownfield redevelopment involves a collaborative process affecting the interests of a variety of stakeholders, including investors, developers, financial institutions, and community members. Though all these parties have significant vested interests in brownfield redevelopment, more attention has traditionally been paid to business interests.
This focus is an understandable consequence of the need to encourage more business investment, but the interest of the community in the process of redevelopment is important and should not be overlooked.
One of the most important aspects of U.S. EPA's Brownfield Initiative is the call for active community involvement. U.S. EPA has used the Brownfields pilot program as a way to identify effective working models for meaningful public participation, which can then be implemented around the country.
To this end, US. EPA makes adequate planning for and actual participation of the community one of the criteria it uses when it selects brownfield grant recipients. Before and after the grant is awarded, U.S. EPA performs community involvement checks by telephone to get updates on the level of community participation at various brownfield site around the country.
U.S.EPA also promotes public participation in the Brownfields Initiative by publicizing activities and providing assistance to local organizing groups so they can hold public dialogues and town meetings. This coordinated effort is significant because it recognizes the necessity of giving individuals a true voice in a process that will affect the future of their communities. According to U.S. EPA officials, "the U.S. EPA is committed to building partnerships with states, cities, and community representatives to develop strategies for promoting public participation and community involvement in brownfields decision making.”
Although the Brownfields Initiative approaches community participation with renewed vigor, the concept of involving the community in the process of environmental remediation is not a new one. For example, there are provisions for public participation under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980(CERCLA).Federal law requires U.S. EPA to provide public notice of plans for removal or remediation within a specified number of days and to set aside an adequate period of time for public comment.'
In addition, technical assistance grants are available for local communities to ensure that participants are knowledgeable and their participation meaningful. These provisions, however, have traditionally been underutilized. Many individuals and community leaders have charged that despite CERCLA's public participation provisions, community involvement has been minimal. Although the government has put forth the concept of community involvement in environmental restoration projects, it has never been manifested to its fullest potential.
The Brownfields Initiative makes active public participation paramount. [It is incumbent upon stakeholders to] examine community involvement in the Brownfields Initiative. [It is also incumbent to address] concerns about the Brownfields Initiative that have been expressed by communities near brownfield sites. [The purpose should be to] evaluate the effectiveness of the mechanisms for community involvement that have been used to date and explores the emerging interplay with environmental justice concerns.
The Community Perspective: A Historical Grounding
During the past few decades, urban centers have undergone a huge transformation. Many of the large institutions and manufacturing companies that once employed a great percentage of the surrounding population are no longer in business or have relocated.
The removal of these blue-collar jobs left many people out of work. Additionally, because many of them lacked the requisite educational background and training, they were unable to compete for skilled-service positions. The result was a dramatic increase in the level of unemployment. Correspondingly, poverty levels rose. Thus, the end of the industrial era played a major role in creating the conditions that are now a familiar part of the inner-city landscape.
Despite these depressed conditions, many urban residents maintain hope for positive change to better themselves and their communities. One source of hope for revitalization and change has always come from the collaboration of developers, property owners, and financial backers with “a plan.” The plan has often taken the form of new housing, retail stores, infrastructure, and even waste-disposal facilities or industrial factories.
Too frequently, however, the plan for revitalization and change materializes without creating any benefits for the community. New facilities are built using outside labor, not labor from the community. If the new facilities are retail oriented, the community often patronizes the stores, but the stores infrequently give any benefits back to the community. If these newly constructed facilities include housing, they often serve to “improve” the community so much that they start the process of gentrification.
This process ultimately pushes out poor residents because they can no longer afford to live there. If the new facilities involve the placement of waste-disposal facilities or industrial factories, these operations are often the source of additional environmental hazards.
These historical experiences form the backdrop for the myriad of responses many urban communities have to the Brownfields Initiative. These responses are valid expressions of concern. Though the optimists in these communities see great potential for the Brownfields Initiative to generate positive change, the cynics remain skeptical about whether that potential will ever be realized.
Some fear that the project will not only fail to produce any tangible benefits for their communities, but possibly harm them as well. If the Brownfields Initiative is to achieve its goal of revitalizing urban communities with active community involvement and participation, local community concerns must be taken into consideration.
COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION IN BROWNFIELD REDEVELOPMENT: Economic Development
One of the major concerns for urban communities is stimulating economic development. There is a widespread feeling that cities must begin to make better use of economic resources and increase their ability to compete in order to survive. Many people feel that urban residents can no longer afford to depend on big outside institutions to create low-skilled jobs.
The industrial era has ended. Most large institutions and manufacturers have relocated their plants elsewhere, often abroad where labor is less costly. The majority of available work, therefore, is skilled labor. Consequently, many people feel that community members must learn marketable skills to compete for jobs on equal footing.
Many community leaders view brownfields as viable tools to help achieve economic self-sufficiency for urban communities. Brownfield redevelopment offers the opportunity to bring contracts and jobs into the community. These resources and opportunities can be helpful, provided they are given to the people of the community and not to outsiders.
Unfortunately, many communities too frequently have had negative experiences with developers who have promised revitalization without delivering. One of the ways communities can reap economic benefits from the Brownfields Initiative is through jobs, skills training, and career development. Much of the work that accompanies a brownfield project is contract driven. The initial work is oriented toward environmental assessment. The later work is oriented toward planning, surveying, and construction.
Communities want to ensure they will get first priority in receiving these jobs. In addition, many community leaders would like brownfield projects to provide them with funding so they can organize programs to give proper training to community members who currently do not have the requisite skills to enable them to work. If community members are given the proper education and skills, they can begin to take care of these sites themselves.
One tangible benefit of the Brownfields Initiative, then, is providing members of the community with concrete skills and experience that they can use long after the brownfield pilot project is complete.