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Home > Lowe's for Pros > Working With Brownfields

Working With Brownfields

By Kathy Renwald

Shipbuilding, foundries, sawmills and salt refining once defined central Vancouver's False Creek waterfront. With it came a legacy of contaminated soil. For the 2010 Winter Olympics, the former industrial wasteland was re-developed into the Olympic Village to house 2,800 athletes.

"It's the sort of project that needs an innovative champion, someone who dreams big and is prepared to push things through," says Margot Long, a principal at Vancouver's PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc., which designed the parks, waterfront and most public areas of the Olympic Village for the $1 billion dollar brownfield redevelopment project.

The Process

First the soil was tested to determine the level of contamination. Then, the contaminated soil enough to fill 38 Olympic-sized swimming pools, was excavated from the 9.3 hectare village site. The soil was replaced with clean fill and some areas were capped with clean soil. Hearty plants and trees like Douglas firs and dogwoods were later planted.

"We weren't planting for the Olympic games. We were planting for the future residents who would live here," Long says. "My advice to others working in brownfield redevelopment is to reach, go beyond your original plans, then if the project gets scaled back, you still have something unique."

Toronto's Underpass Park

There are plenty of other brownfield projects in Canada. Toronto's Underpass Park created an urban oasis filled with basketball courts, a skateboard park, decorative art , outdoor playground with rubberized surfacing and a flexible community space for markets, festival and seasonal public events. The $9.5 million dollar park has transformed a contaminated, industrial piece of land under a highway overpass into a place alive with activity.

Since the area is situated under an overpass, everyone involved in the project had to make sure contamination removal did not undermine the freeway bridge structure, says David Leinster, a principal in The Planning Partnership, a landscape, architecture and design firm of Toronto that partnered with Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, a firm from Vancouver, to design Underpass Park. "A brownfield site is always more expensive to work on," Leinster says. "And you don't really know what you are going to find in these site until you go in and investigate."

Testing revealed several "hot spots" of contaminated soil that needed to be excavated. The rest of the soil contaminated by heavy metals was capped with clean fill and concrete, which, if possible, is a better alternative than "exporting your problems to another site," Leinster says. "The key is to insure that the public is never exposed to contaminants," he adds.

Since a considerable percentage of the park was covered in concrete and asphalt, Leinster says a 1.5 meter cap was added to separate the public from any contaminated areas. To protect workers, who have to access below-ground electrical lines, an additional 1.5 meter cap was added as a buffer from contaminated ground near the lines. Later, surrounding areas were planted with adaptable species such as black locust trees and poplars to provide windbreaks, habitats for local birds and add aesthetic appeal.

"There's so much growth in cities like Toronto, and we're squeezed for land," Leinster says. "Redevelopment of sites like Underpass Park represents how a city grows."

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