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Can Brownfield Sites Become Multi-functional Landscapes?

| November 23, 2012


The focus of this study is to investigate ways in which Brownfield sites can be developed to create sustainable, multifunctional public open spaces that don’t suppress natural processes.  The investigation will centre on:- the importance of Brownfield sites; sustainable and viable development; and relevant case studies. 

What is Multi-functional Space? “Something that is multi-functional does several things or has several different uses”.  (Macmillan Dictionary definition).  In landscape terms, multi-functionalism is the making of design provision for the many demands that are placed upon a site.

In the past, landscape design has focused on the need to solve one particular problem, such as purely aesthetic values.  In recent times, a broader approach to design is becoming increasingly important, due to higher pressures on land use and the idea of social, economical and ecological sustainability.

Historically, landscape design has not been concerned with multi-functionalism, although naturally, some landscapes have evolved to accommodate different needs, thus becoming multi-functional.

Increasing pressures on land has forced designers to become progressively more aware that space needs to be utilised, as a result of population growth and the needs that this creates, such as industry, housing, energy resources and transport.

As a result, designers need to find ways to warrant the creation of open spaces by making them multi-functional, thereby meeting different needs and fully utilising the space.


2. Brownfield Sites

This section will look at what a Brownfield site is and why they are important.

2.1 What, Where and Why

Brownfield sites are defined as “previously developed land” (London Development Agency). These can be found throughout urban areas, old residential areas or more commonly on ex-industrial land. As a result of this industrial past, many Brownfield sites are registered as contaminated, normally by low concentrations of hazardous waste or pollution. Many can be found in areas of high density that are under pressure for development and regeneration. There are over 66,000 hectares of Brownfield sites in England and about 30% are in high-growth areas (The Ecologist, 2005), resulting in most developments of Brownfield sites being residential.

The government set a target that 60% of new developments are to be built on Brownfield sites. This has been met 8 years before schedule (Brownfield Land Redevelopment: Position Statement, 2003). The speed at which this target was met has called for targets to be made at a regional level rather that nationally, whilst also trying to promote the appropriate sustainable development uses, not focused solely on building.

‘Some Brownfield and derelict land can represent important wildlife habitat, public green space or a core part of urban green networks. These are important in providing good quality of life, and Brownfield reuse must strike an appropriate balance in the interests of sustainable development.’  (Environment agency, 2003)

Brownfield sites are becoming more and more important to natural process as areas of land are become more urbanised. They contribute to the flood alleviation, wild life habitats and urban green space.

2.3 Important Assets of Brownfield Sites

Brownfield sites are seen by most people as an eye-sore and waste land but they can support as many rare invertebrates as ancient woodlands. Though some may not be ideal habitats for invertebrates, they can be ideal for small mammals, birds, insects and plant species. This section will look at some of the benefits and assets that these sites may have.


Vegetation on Brownfield site is very rarely intentional and normally plants have naturally colonized the site or unintentionally be introducing to the site in foreign waste, such as waste soil and rubble. The majority of the time it is the hardy alien (non-native) species that initially establish but as Brownfield site do not have high grade soil they find it hard to take hold and native species, larger vegetation and tree and start to colonize the site.

One of the most important factors of Brownfield vegetation it that it is unmanaged and as a result is constantly changing. Scrubland will become grass land and grass land will become woodland. This dynamic landscape is the reason why Brownfield site are among the most bio diverse places in urban areas. What’s more, they are one of the some sustainable place due to plants only growing where condition are right, in contrast with maintained parks where conditions are artificially changed to support the needs of the plant.

This Quote state the typical approach to park maintains in Britain and questions its value.

‘Traditionally the design and management of British parks has favoured an ornamental and manicured appearance. This limits the potential of existing parks as ecologically functional green spaces. In order to enhance the opportunities for biodiversity, park management plans can be revised with the aim of encouraging more species-rich and structurally diverse vegetation. Common examples include reducing mowing to encourage wildflowers and the establishment of field and shrub layers under trees.’

(Town and Country Planning Association, Biodiversity by Design, 2004)


One of the reasons why these Brownfield sites tend to be so good for invertebrates is due to the complex life-cycle of these invertebrates, with each stage of growth having different requirements. The repetitive disturbance and the poor quality soil of some sites, naturally promotes the development of a variety of different habitats that these invertebrates require. Due to the increasing pressure on countryside habitats from agriculture and development, urban Brownfield sites could be the saviour of some rare species.

“The intensification of farming has led to the loss of flower-rich grasslands from the countryside, leaving Brownfield sites as the last refuge for species reliant upon such resources.”

(Buglife-Brownfields, 2011)

Brownfield sites are often used for unofficial purposes that result in areas with reduced vegetation or bare ground and this becomes an environment in itself.  Significantly, the Brownfield site is one of the only places where this type of habitat occurs in urban areas.

Bare ground warms up rapidly in sunshine and is used by burrowing and ground nesting invertebrates, which provides a foraging area for visual predators. A population of invertebrates will attract more animals and in turn, through increased opportunities for predators, there will be a greater variety of animals, bringing about a more complete eco system.

Butterflies and Moths

Moths and Butterflies are one of the insect groups that have been severely affected by changes made to the countryside through agriculture and re-forestation. This has resulted in urban ex-industrial land becoming of vital importance to support healthy colonies of butterflies and moths.

There are a large number of butterflies that can be found on Brownfield sites, such as the Small Copper, Peacock and Common Blue. But Brownfield sites can also be home to numerous different rare and endangered species, such as the Small Blue, Grayling and Dingy Skipper, which are all on the UKBAP priority species list. As stated earlier, sites that have colonised slowly and naturally, often develop a variety of different micro habitats. Butterflies and Moths act as a perfect example of insects which need a variety of environments, due to their complicated life-cycle. The site has to provide areas of sparse vegetation, food opportunities for the young caterpillar and an array of nectar source for adults. The sites should also be sheltered and have good sun exposure.

The reason why butterfly colonies are important on Brownfield sites is because they both create and are a good indicator of biodiversity, as they react very quickly to environmental change. This makes them a good measure of ecological health; if there are a large variety of butterflies, the site will usually support lots of other species.

“Butterflies are increasingly being recognised as valuable environmental indicators, both for their rapid and sensitive responses to subtle habitat or climatic changes and as representatives for the diversity and responses of other wildlife”

(UKBMS, 2010)


Flooding is becoming an increasingly important issue as concerns about climate change grow. A study done by the University of East Anglia has shown that there has been an increase in heavy precipitation in the last hundred years, which cannot be seen as a result of man-made climate change. In parallel, we are covering our urban landscape with non-permeable surfacing such as concrete and natural paving, giving the surface water nowhere to go, leading to over-flowing sewers and damage to infrastructure. This is making our urban green spaces (including Brownfield sites) increasingly more important as a way of dealing with this water through infiltration into the soil and transpiration. There are ways to improve how these urban green spaces manage water, but some methods of cliff stabilisation and the implementation of flood defences can be detrimental to natural habitats.

Scientists at the University Of East Anglia (UEA) have found that winter precipitation – such as rain and snow – became more intense in the UK during the last 100 years.”

(Science Daily, Feb. 15, 2008)

The next group of images shows what the increasing urbanisation is doing to natural systems and the wider affect this is having on the environment. Brownfield sites can help alleviate this problem.

2.3 Options for the future management and development

There are three options when looking at the future of Brownfield site as in the future it will not be possible to just continue to leave them. This section will look in to the three options available, Protect, Re-locate, re-establish


Protection of Brownfield site could be a good option for sites that have high ecological value. This would protect them for future development and any detrimental effect from human disturbance. As was mentioned before there are huge pressures on Brownfield site for development so there needs to be a viable reason for the blocking of development. There is already ways in which site can become protected, one of which is them become registered as a SSSI and there for very unlike to be disturbed. Even though some of these site could be considered as SSSI quality they rarely get recognised, this can be seen in a page by Andy Mclay titled ‘A review of non-statutory grassland sites within the Durham Magnesian Limestone Natural Area’.

Another way that sites can be protected is as a habitat for protected species such as Bats and Great Crested Newts.


Relocation is now being used by developers, to allow then to build of specific areas. If the site wanting to be developed has protected species then in some case these animals can be moved to a suitable location, sometimes this leads to the creation of new habitats. This has because very popular when dealing with newts and amphibians.

There seems to be two issues with this relocation of habitats and most of these revolve around the relocated animals. One is that the species will not take to their new home and as result a decline in population. Another problem is that when relocating animals in to new, existing habitats they may have a negative impact on animals already inhabiting the site.


The final option is the re-establishment of use on the site.  The site has to be adapted or change to accommodate necessary public or private needs. This is the area in which the focus of this essay is going to look at, whilst taking to account the other options.

2.4   How are they perceived?

“It has become conventional wisdom to see the modern city as the product of cheap energy, economic forces, high technology and a denial of nature; as the epitome of environmental deterioration”

(Hough, M, 1983).

As was mentioned in 2.1, a large amount of Brownfield sites are located in high growth areas.  As these sites are located in developed or developing sites, new builds will already have a surrounding infrastructure, making them a safer investment for developers.  Also, councils predominantly prefer to build on urban Brownfield sites to reduce urban sprawl.  For these two reasons it is difficult to warrant green space development for public space unless it is multi-functional.

The public attitude to Brownfield sites does not reflect their ecological and environmental qualities.  Many see them as places for illegal activities, such as drug abuse and fly-tipping, mainly due to the lack of security, safety and maintenance.  After taking a selected group to one of Leeds’s many ex-industrial Brownfield sites, this idea of public disapproval was confirmed.

To gather some primary research as small group of people were taken to a Brownfield site in Armley, situated between the river Aire and the Leeds-Liverpool canal. Though this site is position away from the majority of the surrounding urban dominance, bored by two water course their initial reaction were very negative. Some of the words used to describe the area were; uninteresting, boring, dodgy, pointless, dangerous, lost and dirty. They were then asked what they would do to improve the site, not one of the answer mention the preservation of any of the existing areas. This high lights the main negative view the public have of these abandoned forgotten places.

Human Benefits

There are many human benefits to having quality, sustainable and bio-diverse public spaces. One is how these spaces can bring the community together, through volunteer work and a place to act as a meeting place. Cities are expanding at such a rate that districts are losing their individuality and community spirit. Could development of Brownfield site help to give back this community feel? Is come cases public parks have be created trough community projects which can only be beneficial but volunteers tend to consisted of the older generation that have the time to spend.

Mental health is becoming a growing concern in urban area as stress level increase year on year. There has been suggestions that having access to natural and urban green space can improve mental health, even recovery rates in hospitals. Further scientific research has been carried out to see if there are any significant benefits to mental well-being. “Access to good quality green space provides an effective, population-wide strategy for the promotion of good health, wellbeing and quality of life” (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 2007, The Urban Environment, TSO). There was a wide range of different research method used which found that just having nature visible has powerful effect on human health as well as increasing children’s cognitive functions. The evidence collected is strong enough that councils should consider areas of natural planning in newly developed area and existing communities.

There are also more physical benefits to have local green space. These include:- a place to take part in sporting activities such a walking, football and children’s play areas. In a survey carried out by Sport England 2003 walking was found to be the most popular activity (75%), then use of play area (43%) and relaxing enjoying the aesthetic qualities (28%).

Hidden way in some Brownfield site can be remnants of significant cultural structures. These could consist of factory buildings, mines, important historical social building. These can be an important focal point for the surrounding community, reflecting what their community used to be based around.


Naturalised Brownfield sites can become ideal habitats for rare and endangered species and, as a result, form an urban connection with nature that is missing in many of our urban areas. However the huge ecological importance of these sites is not reflected the public views of them, most people see them as a place of crime, waste and are a negative aspect.

The reason that they are so diverse is due to the lack of human interaction but this also makes then near unusable spaces. Also Brownfield space can have an important role in the natural systems they the urbanisation has disrupted, as well as benefitting the life of the city dwellers. The next section is going to investigate whether it is possible to develop these Brownfield sites in a way that makes then usable spaces whilst retaining some of their important assets, making them multifunctional.


3. Case Studies

This section will explore three existing sites that and looked at the way that they have tried to improve Brownfield site from multifunctional public use.

3.1 Qiaoyuan Park

Qiaoyuan Park, Tianjin, China is an excellent example of ecological design. It has been designed taking in to account natural processes and the demand for a relaxed recreational space for local people. Through natural processes, this park addresses such issues as soil contamination and the distribution of storm water. The concept of the design was “Adaptive Palettes”, planted with native species that were allowed to develop naturally.

China’s dramatic urbanisation and economic boom has placed it in a perfect position to become the world leaders in sustainable city developments, where natural process will become a lynch pin in the longevity of the modern city.

Densely populated at the south and east boundaries, the site is bordered on the west and north sides by a highway and an overpass. Originally, it was a 22 hectare shooting range,

but due to the rapid urbanisation had become Tianjin’s rubbish dump and more importantly, a drainage sink for storm water.

The development project for Qiaoyuan Park started in 2003 and the local government wanted the site to be transformed to provide instant impact. As I mention earlier in this study, the best way to encourage biodiversity is to let a site evolve and colonise naturally. Some of the aims for the site were to naturally improve the poor saline-alkaline soil, to reflect the natural surrounding environment, to help keep the park as low maintenance as possible and introduce a method of holding and purifying storm water through natural processes. The challenge for the designers was how to incorporate soil improvement, storm water purification, environmental education and useable public space with aesthetic qualities.

The city of Tianjin is situated in North East China and was once surrounded by salt marshes and wetlands, which have now unfortunately, due to urbanisation and human pressures, disappeared. This is where the inspiration for the park was taken, with a focus on the variety that can be created through changes in the ph values, nutrient values and the water table. These varieties would then result in creating a range of pockets of different native plant and animal communities, with the slogan ‘let nature work’.

The final design incorporates 21 pond cavities, ranging in size between 10 – 40m and 1 – 5m in depth. Each cavity was constructed at different levels, for example, some being excavated on mounds, others excavated to create lower points across the site, allowing the pond cavities to have their own changing characteristics throughout the seasons. Some became ponds, wetlands, seasonal ponds and some remained dry. Storm water leaves behind minerals and nutrients in the ponds and wetlands whilst the saline-alkali soil in the dry cavities is improved due to filtration.

As mentioned earlier, the local government wanted an instant impact, so initially seed mixes were used to give the vegetated areas a kick start, but unplanned native species were allowed to grow. Looking at the park in plan view, you can see that it is made up of a collection of pockets of vegetation, split by several serpentine red asphalt walkways, which have along their sides, information boards to help educate the urbanites about ecology and the natural environment. In some of the cavities, wooden platforms have been constructed to allow visitors to experience each pocket from it heart.

Overall, this park has been seen as a great success and in the first two months of opening, hosted about 200,000 visitors and now sees thousands of visitors every day. This park shows that a biologically diverse landscape does not have to be an ugly, rough eye sore, but can be usable, beautiful and a benefit to the local community.  This park does fulfil all the aims it set out to achieve but there are some areas and people that is does not seem to cater for. Parks are generally seen as a place of leisure, which include playing sports and physical activity. This park does not accommodate for that at all. It asks the question, is it possible to have a truly multi-functional space for both people and nature?

2.3 Minet Park

The park is situated in a heavily built up area in the London Borough of Hillingdon, measuring approximately 36 ha.

The majority of the site is surrounded by public and private building but is also bored by the Yeading Brook and is a short distance from the Grand Union Canal.

The Minet site was originally use as grazing land but by 2000 had become mainly wasteland. There has been a wide variety of uses across the site, these range from harvesting of brick and earth resulting in area that have had to be in filled with hardcore and subsoil, to areas that have been polluted with chemical waste. There was also evidence of illegal fly tipping that can been seen in the image below. However the site did have strong ecological values despite ground contamination issues and invasive plants such as Japanese Knotweed.

The reason for developing this waste land was to create a public green space to break up dense urban areas, however the main focus was to protects, conserve and enhance the existing ecological benefits.

For the ecological impact assessment the site was divided up in to three section, a north section, central section and south section. The north section was found to have the least species diversity but as it was relatively undisturbed, provided a good habitat for breeding and wintering birds. The central section, due to the high levels of human disturbance was mainly made up of hard standing and poor quality grass giving it low ecological value. The south section was found to be the most diversity, being made up of small fields, scrub, hedges and a pond with drainage ditch. This assessment also found a number different species, “including 11 dragonfly, 21 butterfly and 94 bird species (with 35 of these breeding on the site, including several of Conservation Concern).”

(A Rocha, 2009)

In 2001 and 2002 the first stage in the development started, to clear up all the rubbish and start work on improving the poor quality central section of the park. This was done up the creation of four large bunds what where planted with a wildflower and grass mix.

Also in 2002 a bird ringing program was started in the southern section of the site. This was carried out due to the high number of different Warbler species found. Warblers are migrating bird and the purpose of this research was to see if these birds return to the site year on year. In 2002 a total of 452 birds where ringed.

In 2003 more extensive planting took place. Blocks of tree where planted throughout the northern section of the park, each block with curved edges and fringed by low growing species to help create a woodland edge habitat. This planting did not continue in to the central section as this had been listed as a conservation area. In addition to this the pond in the southern section of the site was cleaned and enlarged, with it profiles changed to become gradual and more natural looking.

Gravel paths where introduced across the site. These where carefully located so that they did not affect the areas that supported more sensitive wildlife communities. I addition to all the ecological based improvements, a large amenity grass area was created in the centre of the site to cater for the public’s needs.

Throughout the design and construction of the site, a conservation charity called A Rocha was consulted. They helped by creating the ecological impact assessment and by allocating the areas that have to be isolated from human disturbance.

Before the development of the Minet site it was cherished by the animals and plant that inhabited it. Through this redevelopment it is now appreciated by the local community, who as a result look after it. The importance and assets of the site have been highlighted.

3.3 Südgelände


Südgelände, is a natural park located in central Berlin, which has now been made accessible to the public.  Originally a shunting station, it was left unused for forty years and in that time was reclaimed by nature.  It is now an official urban conservation area, where nature is protected by law, due to the rich bio-diversity. Many different design ideas have been used to accommodate the varying demands of the both people and nature.

History – From freight rail yard to new wilderness

The nature-park Südgelände is situated on a part of a former much larger freight rail yard that was built between 1880-1890. The old photograph taken in the 1930s gives you an indication of its former utility and the fundamental change it’s undergone.

The area was in full use until after the end of World War II when the train service was discontinued and only part of the site was used for repairing and housing trains. As the majority of the area was unused and neglected, the colonisation of native species occurred. After 45 years this natural growth became the foundation to the design, management and future public use of the land.


Sites of this scale and location are very uncommon and this scenario only arose due to political reasons. Even though the site was in West Berlin, it was under East Berlin authority, as were all Berlin’s rail yards.

Heavily used roads and tracks cut the site off, making it almost inaccessible to the public.  As a result of this isolation and disuse, the site became forgotten. At the end of the 1970s there was a new awareness of the site, when the local authorities proposed the

development of a new shunting station.  The local citizens’ group opposed the plan for the new development and put forward an idea to create a nature park in its place. To support this, they asked for an ecological survey of the area to be carried out by the city government.  The results of this survey showed that this abandoned rail yard was one of the most ecologically valuable areas in the city, due to the biodiversity that had naturally developed over thirty years. This survey and pressure from the local people culminated in the creation of a nature park.

One of the reasons why the local authorities accepted the idea of the nature park was that the rapid development of Berlin in the nineties required some form of ecological colonisation.  In addition, the property rights were handed over to the state of Berlin in 1996. One of the conditions for this handover was that the nature park would become an official protected area.  This was open to the public in May 2000.

The site is around 18 ha and around 1.5km in length.  It is split into two conservation areas, one a nature conversation site and the other a landscape conservation site.

The variety of geological and man-made features created the opportunity for the growth of multiple micro habitats and a large variety of naturally colonising flora and fauna to establish. Some of the geological man-made features are viaducts, ramps, embankments, open plains, and cuttings.

From: Kowarik, 1992, Dahlman, 1998, Saure, 2001 (The following table 1 gives a quantitative impression of the diversity of the site.)


Two surveys were carried out, one in 1981 and the other in 1992.  These surveys showed a rapid increase in woody vegetation in this ten year period. The first survey showed that only 37% of the site was wooded.  This figure almost doubled in the second survey when the wooded area was found to be 70%. This natural re-forestation would have been detrimental to the existing bio diversity values that the site had been protected for.  The increase in tree numbers would have meant a decrease in other plant communities and a reduction in habitat varieties.


from: Kowarik & Langer, 1994 (according to Asmus, 1981 and Kowarik, 1992)

The designers of the site used three main design principles to allow the site to be used by the public without adversely affecting the ecological qualities.

The first principle was a direct result of some of the surveys mentioned above; this was the definition and maintenance of individual spaces. They grouped the site into three different area types, each with their own individual maintenance strategy. These were:

‘clearings have been opened and partly enlarged; stands that are light and open are to be maintained as groves; while in the wild woods the natural dynamics can proceed fully unfettered’.

There are two reasons for the creation of these groupings, one is to maintain the ecological importance across the site, and the other is to increase aesthetic and spatial qualities.

Some changes had to be made to the site to make it accessible for the public.  Tracks were created based around the old railway structure.  Underpasses and ramps were also developed to create path systems on different planes.  This was all done to have minimal impact. In the more highly protected nature conservation area, raised metal walkways have been installed which follow old rail tracks, making this important area accessible whilst protecting vegetation, as the walkways are raised 50cm above all vegetation.

Although the site has been developed as a wilderness park, some cultural elements have been kept, such as water cranes, signals and rail turntables.  These were enhanced by a group of artists called Odious who also played a big part in the designs of the raised metal walkways.  One of the most iconic structures that remain in the site is the old water tower, which is a registered landmark.  Another cultural element that has been allowed is graffiti on the retaining walls of the cuttings and fly-over’s.

Südgelände has become an excellent example of a nature park for the local community to learn and enjoy nature but there where unusual circumstances to it creation. This study is looking at the possibility to turn a Brownfield sites in to a multifunctional public open space. A site a not be just left for 30 years to develop naturally, to then be made access and maintain, there need to be some kind of instant impact. Having said that, there could be stages of development that happen at different times in reaction to the dynamic landscape.


4. Findings and Conclusion

This section will explore the findings, as well as looking at some of the possible and most viable opportunities for making a space multifunctional. These have been chosen to show a cross section of the option and opportunities available when design dual purpose public open space.

There have been many findings throughout this study, the importance of Brownfield sites and the way in which this can evolve to become usable multifunctional green spaces. One of the key finds that this study has uncovered is the environmental importance of Brownfield sites. It has shown that the common belief that a grassy park is more beneficial than abandoned ex-industrial land is not justified.

Not only has the ecological importance been highlight but the need of these spaces for local communities and mental health. A connection with nature has to be kept especially in urban areas. In addition, if the public appreciate the place and the assets are made visible, the site will have some kind of protection and care, this could not only be physical but political. For a site to be appreciated by an entire community it needs to for fill their multiple needs, in other word be multifunctional, if public open space can for fill many different needs and requirements they will be seen as a necessity rather than a luxury.

Another find of the study is that collective needs can have a single solution. An example of this can be seen in section, 3.1 Qiaoyuan Park. Series of pools have been use to help create wildlife habitats, act as SUD’s and become an aesthetic feature.


The title of this study is ‘Can Brownfield Sites Become Multi-functional Landscapes?’, the answer is yes but it has also show more, it has shown that Brownfield site can and should be developed to create multifunction public open space but also that Brownfield site have so many important qualities that should not be overlooked. Designers should bear in mind that as country side habitats are being destroyed, urban parks are now not only for people but for nature too.

After this study there are still some questions that arise. One is that, what makes green development viable, what are the makers, bearing in mind other development pressures? Another is, is it possible for urban areas to take the place of declining country side habitats?

This topic is important to the future development of urban landscape and these unused spaces could be the answer to some of the future problems.



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