Environmental Ethics

Volume 21, Issue 3, Fall 1999

Jack C. Swearengen
Pages 277-292

Brownfields and Greenfields
An Ethical Perspective on Land Use

America’s industries and families continue to forsake cities for suburban and rural environs, in the process leaving nonproductive lands (brownfields) and simultaneously removing greenfield land from agriculturally or biologically productive use. In spite of noteworthy exceptions, urban regions which once functioned as vital communities continue in economic and social decline. Discussion or debate about the problem (or, indeed, whether it is a problem at all) invokes systems of values which often are not articulated. Some attribute the urban exodus to departure from personal ethical norms (e.g., substance abuse, violence, welfare addiction) by urban residents, as though ethical decline is driving the phenomenon. Others take the exact opposite stance, that social and economic decline follow the departure of the economic base. There is no consensus on what government should do about the problem, or whether government should be involved at all. I present elements of a land-use ethic which can accommodate the foregoing. I argue that government is already involved in the brownfields problem because urban flight is facilitated by public policies which de facto subsidize the process. I further argue that the debate invokes key—but unexamined—assumptions regarding limits. Where there are few substitutes for resources and the social cost of exploitation is high, government intervention in the market is necessary; “value-free” economic approaches need to be supplemented by values concerning what ought to be, i.e., what is desirable for society.