Delta institute

Delta institute

Exploring the role of technology in transforming brownfields into thriving neighborhood assets

What do you do with land that's contaminated with hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants? There are 450,000 such sites—known as “brownfields”—in the United States. Typically, these properties were polluted by industrial and commercial operations that, once closed, leave behind a mess for local authorities and communities to address. Cleaning up contamination on these sites can be expensive and can create various liability issues. So these sites often sit vacant for years, further damaging the environment and harming the health of the surrounding community as well as lowering the property value and increasing crime.

Yet these brownfield sites hold tremendous opportunities for communities. The US Environmental Protection Agency has found that cleaning up brownfields has been transformational on multiple levels. The redevelopment of brownfields can help to beautify communities, create jobs, generate taxes, provide important community services and act as a catalyst to revitalize neighborhoods. Brownfield redevelopment projects thus far have created more than 97,000 jobs nationwide and increased residential property values from 5.1 percent to 12.8 percent.

In the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village, residents advocate for a park on a local brownfield site. Community organization and Delta Institute partner, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, is leading local efforts to clean-up contaminated properties in their neighborhood.

Delta Institute is a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that works with businesses, government agencies and communities in the Great Lakes region to create and implement innovative, market-driven solutions that build environmental resilience, economic vitality and healthy communities. Delta’s 18 year history of working with communities at the intersection of the economy and the environment has uniquely positioned them to pioneer work in the brownfields sector, transforming toxic or environmentally contaminated properties into sites for new industry, community revitalization, and nature preservation.

Delta identified two significant bottlenecks in brownfield redevelopment. The first was identifying potential sites and gathering information about the sites, including history, ownership, and hazardous materials. The second challenge was finding a way to connect key stakeholders, including decision makers at the state and local levels and community leaders. Delta’s staff were looking to find technological fixes for these challenges, such as the creation of a single application.

Understanding the problem

When Delta came to ThoughtWorks with this challenge, ThoughtWorks decided to take a step back and first investigate the key pain points, looking to users and stakeholders for insight. We convened staff and stakeholders to identify challenges in the existing brownfield redevelopment process. Using a number of facilitation tools such as storytelling, stakeholder mapping, user journeys and experiment design, the team was able to clarify and prioritize some intervention opportunities for Delta, and also glean new insights about the enormity of the challenges Delta’s partners face when undertaking a brownfield redevelopment project.   

It’s a challenge to accumulate and acquire the info needed, and to know how much work to put into a site to get it shovel-ready.
— Reggie Greenwood, Director of Economic Development, Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation/South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association

Delivering an ecosystem driven by human experience

The workshops revealed that Delta’s comprehensive brownfields sector experience provided a unique opportunity to approach the process intervention at the systems level, rather than just focusing on the creation of one technology tool, product or application. By understanding the relationships between the different stakeholders, and the barriers each stakeholder faces on their journey to redevelop a brownfield, Delta is better poised to intervene with a more holistic approach, ensuring partners have an actionable strategy.

This sparkling new park was a toxic brownfield. An example of a redevelopment project from one of Delta’s community partners, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

ThoughtWorks helped our project team take a needed step back and fully explore the process we were working with to very efficiently identify and focus on relevant pain points in the process, and to confidently begin designing interventions that would effectively meet the needs of our stakeholders.
— Margaret Renas, Senior Manager, Delta Institute

The team produced a series of experiments for interventions that will help Delta’s partners through their redevelopment process in the future. The team also developed a prototype for a new technology tool—making the data collection and analysis of brownfield sites more efficient when assessing redevelopment opportunities and readiness.

ThoughtWorks believes that technology can be a useful tool in addressing a complicated problem. But before suggesting any technology to clients, it is pertinent to better understand the complex ecosystem the client is working within or working to fix. Partnering with Delta, the discovery process revealed an opportunity to think more broadly about available assets and value proposition to ultimately make more impact on the complex ecosystem of brownfield redevelopment.

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