Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Greenfield Development?

3 minute read

Greenfield land has remained untouched by previous development. Some definitions of greenfield land also include agricultural land. Thus, greenfield development encroaches on the natural environment to expand the built environment.

Greenfield Multi-Family

A.Krotov / Shutterstock

Greenfield development is any kind of real estate development in previously undeveloped areas. The new development can be of any variety of land use—residential, commercial, industrial, or infrastructural. It's the previous state of the land that determines whether a new development is a greenfield development. 

Greenfield development can also be understood in context of other versions of development, namely brownfield and greyfield development as well as redevelopment. All of these terms describe development in areas already developed for residential, commercial, or industrial uses. Existing structures, infrastructure, and pollution from pre-existing uses will complicate the development of brownfield and greyfield sites.

It follows that greenfield developments are most frequently found outside the developed extent of metropolitan areas. However, greenfields can also be found in the remaining natural areas or in-between spaces of a developed metropolitan area, such as near a waterway or near a highway off-ramp. 

Some definitions of greenfield development will exclude agricultural land, but most definitions, including the term's origins in the U.K., include land previously devoted to agriculture. All definitions include natural open areas like grasslands, forests, or wetlands, for example. Greenfield development can be a controversial proposal, subject to the political opposition of environmentalists. Greenfield development can be limited or prohibited by regulations. Oregon, the United Kingdom, and Ventura County, California, offer three of the most frequently cited examples of jurisdictions that set boundaries for the horizontal expansion of developed areas, usually called urban growth boundaries.

Greenfield Development: Opportunities and Challenges

Because greenfield developments alter the natural state of land—or removes the agricultural production that humans rely on for sustenance—they incur environmental costs that vary by location. Cities and metropolitan areas—the whole planet really—are surrounded by a finite amount of greenfield land. Every greenfield development encroaches on that finite amount of land and the natural resources provided there, such as clean air and water, habitat for animal and plant species, and open space for recreation.

The mass consumption and use of automobiles enabled greenfield development by lowering the travel time required to navigate distances. The history of 20th and 21st century development is one of greenfield development—as cities and towns expanded into the surrounding countryside and built new cities and planned communities on agricultural land.

To this day, developers and officials will look to greenfield sites for development opportunities free of the political and financial constraints of redevelopment of brownfield sites. There are simply fewer people to oppose a project on greenfield land, as well as fewer existing development interests to build around. 

According to a paper published by the Urban Land Institute, "greenfield development offers the most practical, affordable, and achievable chance to build." According to this paper it's possible to develop on greenfield sites without incurring the negative consequences of sprawl and exurban growth.

Much evidence suggests that public will plus enlightened private self-interest can rid greenfield development of sprawl’s dysfunctions: indiscriminate and incremental use of open land; low-density residential ‘tract’ subdivisions; land-consumptive strip commercial development; lack of connectivity among residential and commercial development projects; transportation systems that are exclusively auto-dependent; social homogeneity; and economic segregation.

Still, greenfield development does require special considerations, such as the development of infrastructure, such as streets, sewers, electricity, cable, and Internet, and—depending on local, state, and federal laws—the mitigation of the environmental effects caused by the development.

Other Uses of the Term 'Greenfield'

In recent years and decades, the term greenfield has been exported to other fields—notably the field of software development. The term's broadened scope refers to projects unconstrained by compatibility with prior work but also lacking the benefit of existing infrastructure or testing.

The use of the term in the software development setting is thus directly related to the use of greenfield by real estate developers—greenfield removes some constraints while offering new opportunities. In both cases, poor design and implementation can transform opportunity into catastrophe.