In the language of urbanism, “greenfields” usually means rural land at the metropolitan edge, where suburbia metastasizes. “Brownfields” are former industrial sites that could be redeveloped once they are cleaned of pollution. “Greyfields” — picture vast empty parking lots — refer to moribund shopping centers. Recently another such locution was coined: “redfields,” as in red ink, for underperforming, underwater and foreclosed commercial real estate.
Redfields describe a financial condition, not a development type. So brownfields and greyfields are often redfields, as are other distressed, outmoded or undesirable built places: failed office and apartment complexes, vacant retail strips and big-box stores, newly platted subdivisions that died aborning in the crash.
Now comes “Redfields to Greenfields,” a promising initiative aimed at reducing the huge supply of stricken commercial properties while simultaneously revitalizing the areas around them. (It’s a catchy title, if imprecise because it’s about re-establishing greenfields within developed areas, not about doing anything to natural or agricultural acreage at the urban margins.) The plan, in essence, is this: Determine where defunct properties might fit a metropolitan green-space strategy; acquire and clear them; then make them into parks and conservation areas, some permanent and some only land-banked until the market wants them again.
While it addresses the long-term challenges of greening cities and reversing sprawl, this idea is a response to immediate dilemmas: the oversupply, devaluation and abandonment of commercial real estate; the destabilization of banks by mounting commercial mortgage defaults; and persistent unemployment. “Regional planning efforts look at 20 years out, 50 years out, 100 years. But we need something now,” says Kevin Caravati, a senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. With support from the City Parks Alliance, a national advocacy group of parks professionals, conservancies and citizen groups, the institute developed an analytic methodology, focusing initially on metropolitan Atlanta.
The goal was to draft “a plan for how do we address the physical assets that remain behind” across a metro area after businesses fail and mortgages are foreclosed, Caravati explains. When a bank writes off its loss, he adds, “You say, ‘Well, the loan’s taken care of.’ Swell. Who’s going to take care of this 300,000-square-foot ugly piece of junk that’s sitting in our community?”