• October 3, 2023

From their downtown cores to their outermost fringes, cities are asking big questions about how urban sprawl can be avoided while they both continue to expand and become more habitable, green, and sustainable places that we can feel stronger relationships with.

What if that new space we need is right under our feet, starting in one of the most unlikely of places: Our cities’ underused industrial land of brownfields?

It’s land that’s been historically zoned as monofunctional to accommodate processes like production, manufacturing, assembly, warehousing, and distribution, but brownfields aren’t beyond reimagining. Having retrofitted and adaptively reused individual buildings, we’re now exploring the land in between, and how they can be made places of beauty, biodiversity and well-being reconnected with their cities.

Case study: Calgary

As cities mature and densify, their land values change due to planning principles, growth, density, and zoning. As a result, they experience societal shifts in values.

In a design charrette carried out by our Calgary studio, we sought to understand how industrial land could be reintegrated into their cities by recovering pre-existing critical infrastructure through adaptive reuse.

Whether it’s industrial or in a downtown office, employees want better workplaces, but as architects and interior designers have reinvented office space in meaningfully open and collaborative ways over the last two decades, industrial space remains often unchanged.

Even as people increasingly work remotely from home or enjoy hybrid working models, there remains many populations who work in industrial sectors who can’t. That makes brownfield reuse about working within their constraints, where sites with minimal soil and air contamination can become found objects with promising new meanings for both those who worked there and those who didn’t.

According to architect and Lemay’s Regional Director in Western Canada Grace Coulter Sherlock, the value we see in industrial land can be shifted by understanding what our responsibilities are to contaminated sites and the policies around them.

“The design ideas we generated were demonstrating that we can find solutions which create better workplaces in districts which prioritize industrial processes but also require in-person employees in many cases,” Grace says.

“Designs like these create equity in areas which have traditionally not prioritized design aspects which have been shown to enhance brand images, happier staff, and higher productivity. It’s incredibly powerful when people are proud and connected to their workplaces.”

To create vibrant spaces for these demographics, even if they are used within limited hours of the day, the team sought to shift the way industrial spaces are perceived to benefit both the people who currently use them and for prospective populations who could find them attractive.

“Downtown cores have the luxury of receiving experiential care through amenities, but when we look at these industrial contexts, we see inequities in attention paid to employee or user experience,” explains Melissa Cowan, an associate and design lead at Lemay. 

“While many of us enjoy the newfound benefits of remote work, those with place-based employment often travel daily to some of our city’s most disconnected and underserviced areas.”

Not everyone gets to work downtown, but as city cores receive focus and energy, who does that benefit and who does that leave out?

It’s a vision of communities where residential, commercial, and industrial sectors can blend together more effectively, working within the constraints of city limits rather than sprawling outward, limiting car-based transportation, and creating vibrant areas where non-remote populations can live, work, and play.

Greater community inclusion through land

“Industrial land represents both very large plots of land near motorway and road infrastructures and buildings with a strong footprint of issues: Heterogeneity of built environments, facades of low permeability, large heat islands, underutilized space, low amounts of biodiversity, and sometimes unfriendly public domains—the list goes on,” Lemay urban planner Ophélie Chabant says.

Redesigning industrial land, then, could imbue it with new value for communities and developers. As seen in the Calgary case study developed by Grace, Melissa and a team of intern architects, old railway tracks were reimagined as pathways, greater intermodal transportation beyond cars was encouraged, activity areas like farmer’s markets, sports fields and playgrounds were created alongside land rejuvenated with greenspace and blue infrastructure.

With appropriable spaces like these, industrial companies who either share attractive businesses as neighbours or offer their own direct-to-consumer components (think breweries with pubs, meatpackers with BBQ restaurants, or wholesale retailers with cafés) can either serve their employees better or attract wholly new populations and income streams.

“Industrial areas are pragmatic and flexible in design with low site density, offering a blank slate for spaces to be adaptively reimagined through an additive approach,” says Melissa.

“Since many of these areas exist within inner-city limits and next to well-connected and complete communities, we noticed opportunities to adapt these areas and better connect the city’s existing fabric, creating catalysts for change by emphasizing human experiences.”

As industrial land is often the source of concentrated pollution islands and increased traffic with specific infrastructural needs and costs, changes like these can tackle the challenges cities face of sustainably expanding and balancing their communities’ housing and neighbourhoods with strong industrial sectors.

From monofunctional to multifunctional

At its core, industrial land is defined by punch clocks where people report for work, but it can be more than that, becoming a subject of curiosity for designers: How could their uses be identified and mixed with new ones that layer in greener, more pedestrian and transit-friendly aspects to create a more human experience that everyone can enjoy?

Looking to develop brownfields with ideas that bridge old industrial areas with new purpose, we also conducted collaborative research with the City of Montreal’s Design Montréal bureau.

The result? The Handbooks of Best Practices for Design and Architecture Quality for Industrial Sites, which breaks down industrial land retrofits into six actionable categories:

  • Resilience: This is greater urban resilience, using strategies like bioclimatic design, energy efficiency, food production, landscape that mitigates the effects of climate change, stormwater management, and others.
  • Environment: The reduction of carbon footprints, using sustainable materials, recycling as much as possible, preserving green and blue biodiversity corridors for urban animals and plant life, decontaminating soil, and bringing in active mobility networks like bicycles and public transportation.
  • Economy: It’s important that redeveloped industrial land must contribute to its neighbourhood’s prosperity, make land attractive again by highlighting the land’s original purposes, inserting public space, and use timeless styles and materials to make it trend-proof.
  • Culture: As industrial sites’ history and unique characteristics can be preserved, they can also be integrated with the city around them with public space and landscape design, all while encouraging rich cultural and artistic aspects.
  • Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: However space changes, it need to be opened up to all communities with democratized areas like parks and shorelines, universal designs for mobility and wayfinding, collaborative areas for recreation and community development, and more.
  • Health and Wellness: Space can address emotional and physical health as well as a sense of fulfillment through actions like paying attention to nature and acoustics, biophilia, access to fresh food and water, encouraging active lifestyles, and providing safety.

With these handbooks, says Ophélie, the most promising actions around Montreal’s industrial land could be identified and implemented.

“Studies like these can inspire future planning and reflection exercises for potential development by documenting inspiring local and international industrial projects,” she explains.

“It develops a design culture for industrial projects centered on finding innovative and sustainable responses to climate change resiliency, tackling challenges like soil and water contamination, waste production, noise pollution, and cohabitation.”

Designing for renewed purpose

These ideas for industrial land are far from catch-all solutions, but they do represent processes and mindsets that can be put in place to help cities navigate through contaminated land.

Whether or not the industries using brownfields are employee-intensive with a large workforce, or they move towards automation, the spaces they require are massive and often creates a monoculture without considering the possibility of second and third dimensions of city life and public animation.

The implications are far-reaching, however: Cities which are making sustainable transitions with vast swathes of land dedicated to energy conversion parks for wind and solar also need to consider how those sites can make room for people as well.


Masterplans like Bridge-Bonaventure Sector  and Dominion Bridge reveal how industrial sites can reestablish inclusive and green links to their cities—learn more about how these projects can become a reality with our urban design team.