Chicago Pioneers Brightfields Conversions

It was only a year ago when the Department of Energy (DOE), Washington, D.C., kicked off a nationwide initiative to turn Brownfields - abandoned or under-used industrial or commercial facilities where contamination prohibits expansion or redevelopment - into Brightfields. Since then, Chicago has led the way in Brightfields conversions, with several redevelopment projects under its belt and more on the drawing board.

Brightfields are converted contaminated sites that now house pollution-free, solar energy and high-tech solar manufacturing jobs. These projects not only improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also create high-tech jobs in blighted urban areas.

Chicago was the first major city to embrace Brightfields redevelopment. Last year, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced plans to make Chicago the Midwest's center of green energy industry by creating jobs and energy in an environmentally friendly way, says Bill Abolt, city environmental commissioner.

Chicago is a pilot city for measuring how Brownfields redevelopment affects clean air, Abolt says. So, the city is studying how using cleaner resources, such as solar and natural gas, instead of coal directly impacts the air.

The city's first Brightfields project cleaned up Sacramento Crushing, a rock crushing and concrete recycling facility that was contaminated with wood and debris. Eventually Spire Solar, a solar panel manufacturing company and Greencorps Chicago, a community gardening and job-training program were housed there.

"We ran the recycling operation for a year and a half to clean the site," Abolt says. "It was one of our bigger Brownfields cleanups on the west side industrial area, which has turned around and is doing well."

Out of 21 acres, the city allotted 17 acres of the property for redevelopment and four acres were converted into a model of green architecture.

The city created 100 manufacturing and installation jobs for the project, and has committed to buying $2 million in solar panels, the first of which was placed at the city museum on Earth Day. Further, the mayor announced that every city-run museum would be powered by solar energy. In September, Chicago began installing its first solar panels on the Peggy Notabaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, Ill.

Greencorps Chicago also has created green jobs through its welfare-to-work program, wherein unemployed workers are trained in landscaping. This provides workers Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., training and teaches them about Brownfields remediation, Abolt says. And during their year of training, workers help the city to encourage community involvement by developing gardens in vacant lots that are known for illegal dumping. After providing training and an internship, Greencorps helps workers find jobs.

"We found that once a community takes control or ownership of that site, trash dumpers move on to a new location," Abolt says.

Currently, Mayor Daley and Illinois Governor George Ryan have committed $40 million to create another Brightfields by cleaning up an old landfill and developing a 3,000-acre, solar-powered, open wildlife preserve. This cluster site, which is highly contaminated, will perhaps be the country's largest solar-generating station in the country, Abolt says.

"We have many active and abandoned industrial pieces of property, and we also have thousands of acres of open space and habitats, including many wetlands," Abolt says of the site. "The governor and the mayor are announcing plans to bring both industry and the ecology back together."

Meantime, other major cities have expressed interest in Chicago's Brightfields. Recently, environmental commissioners from Detroit and San Diego visited Chicago's Brightfields to see how the projects could be replicated. Other cities jumping on the Brightfields bandwagon include:

- Cape Charles, Va., is creating an eco-industrial park that will use a number of energy technologies, including solar energy systems.

- Stamford, Conn., is working with the DOE and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., to incorporate solar power into redeveloping two Brownfields.

- The Los Angeles department of power and water is developing an urban solar program that may include manufacturing renewable technologies in empowerment zones and Brownfields areas.

- The Green Institute in Minneapolis, Minn., is located on a former Brownfields and houses many energy and environmental companies while serving as a training, demonstration and educational center.

- Washington, D.C. hopes to create a green industrial park on a former Brownfields site located in Anacostia.

In the future, the state of Illinois and Chicago have other Brightfields plans, which include areas in Chicago's southeast side, formerly home to the city's steel industry and now home to many landfills and a city recycling center.

Chicago also is a pilot city for two other environmental programs. One study measures the impact of recycling Brownfields rather than abandoning them. The other project quantifies the impact of green buildings with features such as light-colored roofing, renewable energy and native plants in landscaping, on air quality.

"Cities need to look at their resources, whether it is an old landfill, contaminated property or purchasing power or energy," Abolt advises. "All of this can be used to solve difficult environmental and economic problems, but only if problems are looked upon as opportunities."