Journal vom 4.6.2018

Urban Brownfields and their reappropriation by different groups

by Dieter Rink


Over the last one to two decades, brownfields have become the focus of scientific and artistic interest, and in some cases of public attention. Brownfields have of course existed for much longer, but in the past they were regarded as a marginal phenomenon that was thought to disappear soon. This has changed, brownfields have become a permanent phenomenon in many cities and regions. Urban brownfields are a global phenomenon (Oliver et al., 2005; de Sousa, 2008), but their distribution in the individual world regions and their cities is very different. They are concentrated in regions and countries that experienced early industrialisation, for example in the 19th or early 20th century. It is therefore no coincidence that there are many urban brownfields, especially in some European countries and in North America, but also in South America or China.


The reasons for the emergence of urban brownfields are manifold; they are constituted by a complex interplay of technological, economic and demographic factors. In the 20th century, first in the wake of the destruction of the Second World War, extensive brownfields developed in many European cities, which were often only reused after decades. The wilderness of the brownfields was a widespread phenomenon in many European cities and the „ruins vegetation“ forms a firm topos in the memory of post-war generations. German cities were particularly affected by the Anglo-American bombardments. In the second half of the 20th century, urban brownfields in Europe emerged mainly as a result of economic structural change. This led either to the final closure of certain businesses, to a relocation from the inner cities to the outskirts of the city or the surrounding area, in the last 2-3 decades within the framework of an increasing international division of labour also by relocation of operations abroad. This resulted in more or less extensive brownfields in many locations close to the city centre. The structural change in the transport sector caused central and relatively extensive brownfields, which was created in many cities by the abandonment of railway stations and port facilities. Finally, military brownfields, such as abandoned barracks and training grounds, which arose in the result of demilitarisation, should also be mentioned.


The extent of brownfields varies greatly from country to country and region to region in Europe. The range of the known area in the individual EU states extends from 11,000 ha of brownfields in the Netherlands to 900,000 ha in Romania. The share of the total national area of each country varies from 0.01% in Sweden to 3.8% in Romania (Oliver et al. 2005, p. 279). Nevertheless, the available data show that brownfields are already a significant problem in purely quantitative terms, Oliver et al. assume, for example, about 100,000 brownfields in England, 200,000 in France and 362,000 in Germany (ibd., p. 277). Brownfields show a great variance with regard to their size, location in the city and their former use. Most of the brownfields in Europe have been used for industrial purposes, although this differs regionally. The largest brownfields are, of course, former military and railway sites. Concentrations of fallow land can be found in the former industrial and working-class districts of the 19th century. Cities that used to be centres of mining and steel production can literally be dominated by brownfield. The impression of stagnation, abandonment and decay then shapes the entire city or even entire regions, as is the case in France in Nord-Pas-de-Calais or in Lorraine. After the waves of utilization tasks in the past decades, other brownfields are to be expected in the future. The formation of brownfield sites is a process that will continue undiminished in the coming years and decades as a result of shrinkage in some European countries, in some cases only then will it develop its full momentum. There will then be more modernist areas and buildings of the 20th century, as can already be observed in some regions, where, for example, prefabricated buildings, schools and shopping malls are empty and abandoned.


Due to a lack of demand, deindustrialised and shrinking cities and regions have practically no building or commercial use for these areas. Their decontamination, design and revitalisation as green spaces is a problem, as they often lack financial resources. Often the areas cannot even be protected from unwanted visitors. Brownfields become places that cannot be entered and which gradually fall into oblivion. “Holes” are thus created in the middle of the city in the structure of land use, in the urban fabric. The term „brownfield“ has only become commonplace in many countries in recent years. Other terms are often used, such as ghostly places, no-man’s-lands, forgotten places or – in more recent times – the anglicism „lost places“.


Brownfields are often associated with spontaneous successions, ruins vegetation and wilderness, which in many places can extend as far as forestation. The so-called „industrial forest“ in the Ruhr area is a paradigmatic example of this. Urban brownfields are specific sites for plants and animals; they often develop a high level of biological diversity. Due to sometimes extreme site conditions, rare plant or animal species sometimes settle on brownfields. Brownfields have therefore also become the focus of nature conservation, plants and animals have become the subject of nature monitoring and some of the areas have even been placed under nature conservation (Rebele/Dettmar 1996).


In the last two decades artists and photographers in some European countries have begun to deal with brownfield sites. Ruin photography, also referred to as “ruin porn” in English, has become a genre in its own right that has recently emerged from it. The subjects of this photograph are also classified under the label „Lost Places“ and are abandoned buildings such as factories, mines, railway stations, hotels, port facilities, etc. In the pictures, the past beauty of the old buildings is captured, partly also aestheticized or romanticized with all kinds of alienation effects. The wilderness and decay resulting from the abandonment of use are brought into contrast with the otherwise strict order and modern coolness of the city, in some cases also motives of the flight from civilization play a role. A casual theme of this photographic genre is the „reconquest“ of buildings and areas by nature, i.e. more or less advanced stages of succession.


In addition, sprayers and street artists have discovered brownfields for themselves, here they find numerous and in part large-area walls for their art. Taller buildings and chimneys offer spaces that give the works of urban street art visibility into the cities. Since the 2000s there have even been efforts in Europe to systematically develop brownfields for urban street art. The international Urban Art Festival IBUg (IndustrieBrachenUmgestaltung) has been taking place in Saxony/Germany since 2005. In small towns in Saxony, brownfields and industrial sites that are no longer in use are being redeveloped together with urban art artists from all over the world and used for art ( Of course, most of the graffiti is considered vandalism.


Meanwhile, many amateur historians also deal with brownfield sites and make their history accessible. The exploration of urban brownfields is part of a trend that has become known as urban exploration or urban exploring (Urbex/Urbexing for short). Besides the urban underworld, the catacombs of the sewerage system, brownfields have become an independent subject of Urbexing as lost places. In this way, they are also made accessible to the local heritage, the subject of presentations, excursions and finally also of tourist tours.


Brownfields are only interesting as unused, deserted and wild places, they have a specific aura that makes them as attractive to some people – biologists, explorers, street artists, photographers and other rubbernecks – as we have seen. In the course of revitalisation or re-use, however, they lose this aura.



De Sousa, C. (2008): Brownfields Redevelopment and the Quest for Sustainability, New York

Oliver, L. et. al. (2005): The Scale and Nature of European Brownfields, in: CABERNET (Concerted Action on Brownfield and Economic Regeneration Network) (ed.): Proceedings of the International Conference on Managing Urban Land, Nottingham, 274-281.

Rebele, F.; Dettmar, J. (1996): Industriebrachen. Ökologie und Management (Industrial Brownfields. Ecology and Management), Stuttgart.




Dieter Rink is the Deputy Head of the Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ in Leipzig.