Go Brown to Go Green

I’ve a confession to make.

I’m a bit of a map geek.

Maps are about trying to capture and communicate knowledge about the world – and whether it’s tube lines or star systems, I think there’s something very cool about them.

One of the interesting things about maps is that they not only represent the geography, but also the period – effectively capturing time as well as space, with old maps working like a window back into the past.

Have you ever wondered what was ‘there’ before you were ?

If you’re sat in a Norman castle reading this then the odds are there wasn’t a whole lot of human development involved beforehand, but  if you’re in an old urban area, and the walls around you aren’t made of stone, then it’s quite likely there’s some history literally under your feet.

Weirdly, looking at old maps is a large part of what I do for my day job as an environmental scientist working in land contamination and remediation. If we want to properly understand the condition of the land today, it’s important to know what it was used for before – whether a farmer’s field or an old gasworks !

Two hundred and fifty years ago the UK gave birth to the industrial revolution, which went on to transform the world with factories, railroads and all kinds of products of coal, iron and steam. Needless to say there wasn’t a lot in the way of environmental protection or health and safety back then, and numerous toxic wastes and by-products of these various activities and industries found their way into local surroundings and communities, where many still remaining in the ground.

We’ve added to this contamination over the decades by spreading ash and clinker in our gardens, through fuel leaks, from deposition of combustion products from coal fires and car exhausts, lead pipes, asbestos roofing materials, sending effluent and sewerage into the ground and landfilling all manor of wastes. Contamination of our air and water tends to disperse and be short lived, but contamination of our soil tends to stay put.

There are three things to think about.

Firstly, are there places where this contamination is so harmful to people’s health that it need’s to be cleaned up ? If so how do we find them and who should pay for the clean-up ? An easy question to answer if you can identify the polluter, but altogether harder if you’re talking about contamination from factory long gone and replaced by housing.

Secondly, when we build new developments are we sure we’ve properly considered any possible contamination that may exist, and ensured our new homes and gardens are suitable for use – after all, the derelict site of a former chemical works might be heavily contaminated, but if fenced off, that contamination may not actually be causing any harm until houses are built on it.

Thirdly, have we stopped causing new contamination ?

These questions are important if we’re to have peace of mind about our homes, and progressively improve the quality of our environment – but the truth is they’re not rocket science. We have well developed and cost effective ways of investigating and remediating contaminated sites, and are continually developing our understanding of the risks and issues involved. Good news if we want to develop the vacant and derelict industrial sites in our urban areas, and avoid having to concrete over ever larger areas of our natural countryside, whether currently used to grow food, or by wildlife.

Mark Twain once said ‘Buy land, it’s the one thing they’re not making any more’, and of course he was right. The UK is a small crowded island, and if we’re to avoid eating up more and more green space through increasing urban sprawl for the homes and infrastructure we need, we’re going to have to get even better at recycling our old urban areas into new urban areas, including dealing more efficiently with the chemical consequences of former land use.

In it’s current drive for economic growth, the Government continues to debate the relaxation of green belt protection around our towns and cities. The alternative is, of course, that we focus development on our existing brownfields, using space more efficiently, rather than simply using more.

If you want the maps of the future to have as much green on them as our maps of today, why not drop your MP a line and let them know.

Afterwards you might also want to look at a few old maps of where you live – you might find it was an old factory, or you might find it was a green field.

Decide for yourself which is worse . . .

Photo by PhillipC, via Flickr

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