revitalization

Brownfield Revitalization as a Community Development Catalyst

Brownfield redevelopment has become a hot topic of late. The issue can be examined through a number of different lens. A project in Middletown, Connecticut will focus on the health outcomes of brownfield conversion in inner-city neighborhoods. Middletown’s Department of Planning, Conservation and Development has been awarded a grant from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Center for Disease Control. One of the aims of this initiative is to increase recreational opportunities on unused brownfield properties in order to address health disparities including childhood obesity and associated illnesses in several of Middletown’s urban areas. This is a very interesting take on the subject, and the process of creating playgrounds from brownfields can serve as a powerful symbol of neighborhood revitalization. The Middletown initiative also seeks to educate community residents about the potential hazards posed by contaminated buildings and land. This latter task is also being done in Waterbury through the Waterbury Environmental Health Fund.

As Hugh Bailey, a journalist for Hearst Media and urban planner who has researched brownfield revitalization in many communities across the nation and in Germany, points out, a paradigm shift is necessary when dealing with brownfields. It is not enough to see them in economic terms, but in how they can be redeveloped for the benefit of their communities. In his presentation, “Ruins Reborn”, developed from the short film and series of articles that were the product of his research, Mr. Bailey described the difference in how the Germans approach the issues of brownfields. The Germans have a more holistic view of the problem, unlike the case-by-case assessment typical of American brownfield redevelopment. Mr. Bailey discussed Landschaft Park in Duisburg, the focal point of a network of greenways and revitalized brownfields in the Ruhr Valley. This re-appropriation of the post-industrial environment is notable for its aesthetic and cultural significance. The Germans have taken what was once one of the most heavily industrialized regions of Europe, nearly rendered a wasteland by the departure of the manufacturing base, and transformed it into an area with a strong sense of place and community. This was achieved by tapping into the industrial heritage of the Ruhr Valley, which was not seen as a liability, but an important component of the region’s identity. The Germans were able to keep many buildings intact but gave them new purposes, ones that serve the greater good of the community and environment. Mr. Bailey noted that preserving buildings in place is a better solution than demolition, which releases large amounts of toxins into the atmosphere.

Mr. Bailey proposes something similar for the Route 8 corridor, and spoke of Knowlton Park in Bridgeport as a beachhead on that city’s beleaguered waterfront. He stressed the importance of connectivity, a theme frequently invoked at the Let’s Talk Trails event. If all the elements of the project are not united by a single vision or master plan, the prospect for success and overall effect of redevelopment will be much lower. Mr. Bailey brought up the necessity of using available state and federal funding to leverage private monies, but acknowledged that in-demand locations such as Boston and New York are seen as lower risk to developers than communities like Bridgeport, despite the latter city’s harbor and transportation access. Towns like Ansonia and Waterbury are considered even riskier, and the issue of connectivity is of great importance in this regard. Mr. Bailey spoke of the catalytic effect, the process by which one successfully redeveloped property changes the complexion of the surrounding neighborhood and spurs further revitalization, and hoped that Knowlton Park and O’Sullivan’s Island in Derby, in conjunction with the Naugatuck River Greenway, would have this effect in starting the transformation of the post-industrial landscape in the Route 8 corridor.

 

-John McDonald, Extension Intern

“Ruins Reborn”, Hugh Bailey offers revitalization strategies

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Former Bristol Babcock complex in Waterbury, photo by John McDonald

 

Hugh Bailey, urban planner, columnist for the Connecticut Post, and member of UConn class of 1999, will be speaking on the issue of the post-industrial challenges posed by the numerous abandoned buildings in Connecticut’s urban areas. His presentation, “Ruins Reborn: Revitalizing Post-industrial Cities”, scheduled for 10/28 from 12:30 to 2:00 pm at the Waterbury campus of the University of Connecticut, promises to tackle this issue in a fashion which would integrate historical preservation and community economic development. I am looking forward to hearing Mr. Bailey speak. The harsh realities of the post-industrial decline hit Connecticut’s cities in the 1970s. Many communities have never fully recovered. The legacies of our reliance on heavy industry have included fiscal insolvency and environmental degradation. While underutilized, polluted buildings and land abound, it is important to remember that the scale of the problems we currently face are lesser than they once were.

I was born in Waterbury in 1973. My first inkling of the post-industrial decline came with my father’s layoff in 1980. Food stamps soon supplemented our meagre income. We bounced back somewhat during the Reagan years, but another recession was around the corner. I left high school in the thick of it, with no concrete plans for my future. I became a college student only recently, after a lengthy odyssey that included Job Corps, an apprenticeship, and many low-paying service jobs. My memories of post-industrial Waterbury are vivid and my experiences in this landscape shaped my environmental attitudes, in this case meaning my enduring orientations to the physical environment. I remember riding in my parent’s minivan along Silver Street, en route to the Naugatuck Valley Mall on Wolcott Street. I looked out the window in awe at the derelict Scovill Brass buildings. This massive complex covered nearly 200 acres. I remember some ten years later, walking down East Main Street, still in the shadow of the Scovill buildings.

Waterbury’s landscape has already been greatly altered. The Brass Mill Center currently occupies the former Scovill site. True to my blue-collar roots, I worked as an apprentice electrician, wiring a few of the stores in the new mall which was completed in 1996. Other industrial sites in Waterbury have since been demolished. There are similar instances throughout the Naugatuck Valley. Naugatuck has also been transformed as the former U.S. Rubber complex has largely been razed. Those familiar with the region’s industrial heyday are no doubt surprised to see how much of the built environment has been changed. Mr. Bailey advocates a different sort of approach than widespread demolition, which sometimes results in polluted lots sitting vacant for years, or conversion to retail space, which would further dissipate the area’s limited consumer base. In his article, which has been published in UConn Magazine, Mr. Bailey discusses other ways to deal with the problems posed by abandoned factory buildings.

One of Mr. Bailey’s suggestions is to link the proposed Naugatuck River Greenway with factory complexes restored as industrial heritage sites. As Mr. Bailey reports, this strategy has worked well in the Ruhr Valley of Germany, one of Europe’s most heavily industrialized areas. Mr. Bailey also discusses instances where factory complexes have been converted into successful mixed-use developments. Mr. Bailey believes that these type of developments can help post-industrial cities regain their lost identity by connecting their rich past to their uncertain future. In this sense, these cities can be reborn, as the title of Mr. Bailey’s lecture suggests.

From my experience assisting with the economic impact study of the Naugatuck River Greenway, I understand that these sort of projects can be costly and may not provide the type of economic boost Naugatuck Valley municipalities are looking for. They are long-term solutions to a pervasive problem whose benefits will accrue over time and ultimately create stronger communities. The Naugatuck Valley cities and towns must be made aware of such concepts as amenity value, preservation value, and social capital; intangibles that are often difficult to quantify. That may prove to be as big of a challenge as restoring factory buildings that have been abandoned, in some instances, for nearly 40 years.

 

Event information: http://events.uconn.edu/event/41793/2015-10-28

Mr. Bailey’s article: http://magazine.uconn.edu/2015/04/ruins-reborn/

 

– John McDonald, Extension Intern