The Future of Brownfields

How might brownfield redevelopment become a critical path for regional regeneration?

The Future of Brownfields Research Project is a work in progress. The project is a collaboration between ID and the Calumet Collaborative. Currently, participants are  (1) advancing the findings from the first part through rigorous prototyping, and (2) applying for funding to support a sustainable, long-term research project. 


Graduate design students, in partnership with Calumet Collaborative network of collaborators, took a nonlinear, system-led approach to understanding complex challenges embedded in the process of brownfields redevelopment. The team explored brownfield redevelopment as a critical path for restoring local economies in the Calumet Region. By understanding the flows of resources, underutilized assets, and the dynamics of the multiple systems shaping current challenges, the team proposed new strategies for regional redevelopment.


As industrial production in the Calumet area declined or moved away, large swaths of vacant and contaminated land were left behind that lack economic activities, business interest, and social capital. This post-industrial legacy became apparent in the declining livelihood of the region as a whole. Hazardous effluents and materials, combined with the reduction of job opportunities, continue to prompt residents to move out of the Calumet area while increasing the complexity of restoring a thriving local economy. After years of disinvestment, a patchwork of abandoned industrial, commercial and residential properties has been left behind, with inadequate solutions for re-injecting life into those properties. While some vacant spaces (clean parcels or former agricultural land [e.g. “greenfields”]) are being developed at an increasing pace within the last decade, others (containing multiple levels of contamination [e.g. “brownfields”]) )not only blight their immediate surroundings, but also the future of the entire region.


The team explored the Calumet region as a patchwork of abandoned infrastructures with situated challenges, and identified several patterns among them, including former landfills, vacant residential buildings, abandoned industrial sites, and contaminated natural areas. By applying systems design methods under eight different lenses (ecological, financial, built, digital, governance, cultural, networks and human), the team mapped how multiple systems hinder or support redevelopment. The team then identified underutilized assets in the regions, and used prototyping to explore how systems could be activated to restore local economies. By doing so, researchers uncovered seemly unrelated attributes in the system, and identified patterns across the different prototypes that could inform new strategies for regional redevelopment.

Prototype as strategies for immersion

The project was developed through a collaboration between IIT Institute of Design research team, the Calumet Collaborative staffs, and their network of collaborators and experts from multiple disciplines. Throughout the Spring semester of 2018, the IIT Institute of Design hosted design-led workshops, panel discussions, and open sections for review and critique, to combine dispersed knowledge while integrating fragmented experiences in brownfield redevelopment processes.

Prototypes served as artifices through which graduate students learned about the complex situations in which they were immersed. Because the prototypes were used to test hypotheses and concepts, and to explore alternative futures, they became the connecting tissue across multiple activities throughout the course. Finally, this intensive immersion uncovered four properties that contributed to the design of new systems interventions: symbiotic relations, adaptive growth, self-organizing systems, and values creation. By incorporating these properties, new questions were raised, and new strategies were developed for restoring local economies through brownfield redevelopment.


Concepts developed

The incorporation of these properties into the exploration led to interventions that speak to some aspects of the complexity embedded in brownfields redevelopment. While there are infinite speculative futures that can promote new interactions in the Calumet region, the current work presented several scenarios as pathways for local economic redevelopment: Act Calumet, Flag Calumet, Value Calumet, and Mini Calumet. Each scenario presents a portfolio of interventions that — if combined into an ecosystem of products and services — can leverage multiple assets, including brownfields. The matrix shows how main offerings from the scenarios can distribute power and agency across the multiple agents involved.

While the scenarios might be understood as separate interventions, four actions can be identified across them: involving residents, leveraging assets, empowering science, and strengthening the local economy.

In order to integrate these seemingly unrelated interventions, students proposed a new form of governance that relies on the interconnectivity between physical space and digital platforms to promote dynamic integration of multiple systems. The overall goal is to align individual and businesses projects to regional goals by connecting available data from products, services and the environment to inform better decisions for broader system impact.

Below is one example of several dashboards that resulted from speculations about how the available data can be integrated with the regional goal. Students focused on dashboards that can provide information about dynamics of multiple systems, including the flows of multiple values for local residents, organizations and public institutions.

Lastly, students suggested to the Calumet Collaborative the addition of knowledge and data brokerage capabilities to provide innovative approaches considering the required flexibility in the type and timing of activities the organization takes on.

Download the final documents for more information





This information is also published HERE.