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An artist's rendering of former Sydney, N.S., tar ponds site envisions what it will look like after completion – with a park system and footpaths. ‘The Sydney tar ponds are no more,’ Public Works official Randy Vallis says.Stantec

There's something to be said for cleaning up tar ponds, sprucing up a neglected underpass, or growing vegetables on Vancouver's downtrodden Downtown Eastside.

The 2012 Brownie Awards, sponsored by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., acknowledge projects that are reinvigorating brownfield sites, where soil and water have been contaminated by industrial and commercial waste, thereby shining a light "where trolls [used to] live."

Best overall project

The Sydney, N.S., tar ponds and coke ovens remediation project was a popular choice this month as the overall winner of the 2012 Brownie Awards because only five years ago, it wouldn't even have qualified as a brownfield, said Glenn Miller, vice-president of education and research for the Canadian Urban Institute, which organizes the awards. Brownfields are, by definition, sites that will be remediated and brought into productive use.

It's why federal Public Works official Randy Vallis becomes a tad emotional when talking about the interminable project that has taken years to get to the point where he can say: "The Sydney tar ponds are no more."

A steel plant, once the second-largest producer in Canada, and accompanying coke ovens left 99 hectares with more than a million tonnes of toxic sludge in the heart of Sydney. The Sierra Club of Canada has called the area the largest contaminated site in North America. For years, the Canadian Cancer Society announced that Nova Scotians suffered the highest rates of cancers in the country, with those in Cape Breton the highest in the province.

After decades of stops and starts, delays and community controversy, Public Works and Government Services Canada teamed up with the Nova Scotia government in 2007 (six years after the plant closed) to pour $400-million into remediation of the land. Cleanup involved solidifying the toxic ooze with cement, then burying it beneath an engineered cap of clay and soil.

Mr. Vallis, director of the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens remediation project for Public Works and Government Services Canada, said by the end of November, the last section of engineered cap will be installed, a year ahead of schedule. The land will eventually be developed as a park system with footpaths and green space.

Up to $20-million has been set aside to develop the downtown recreation area, with an entertainment venue and parking in months and years to come – while still being watched carefully by community groups concerned with cleanup issues.

The project is being acclaimed for its short- and long-term land development strategies, and it has revitalized a community that had "a millstone around its neck," Mr. Vallis said.

Best large-scale project

"It's funny. I never thought I would actually wish for paved land to farm on, but I do," said Michael Ableman, co-director of the SOLEfood Farm project in Vancouver.

In 4½ years, Mr. Ableman and partner Seann Dory have transformed about five acres of contaminated, spurned city land. They farm on top in containers. The vibrant urban farms produce vegetables and fruits for local markets and restaurants. Although people chat a lot about urban agriculture these days, few undertake it, Mr. Ableman said. The SOLEfood lands are at a scale "unheard of" in North America, he added.

He started the project in the most unlikely of places, the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, carving out a half-acre of productive farmland from a paved lot beside the Astoria Hotel in East Hastings, and hiring street people to work it. The SOLEfood project brought social enterprise into the development mix, the CUI's Mr. Miller said, completely changing the dynamic in the neighbourhood.

Since then, Mr. Ableman has taken over four other sites – an old gasoline station (leaking gasoline, oil, solvents, etc.), an area beneath an underpass, a derelict site with a building "with all kinds of nasty stuff in it," and paved lots. The paved lots give an advantage, he said, because they form a barrier over contaminated grounds.

In general, Mr. Ableman tried to solve several problems with one solution: He created movable plant beds on wooden skids that can be moved with a forklift if the owner of the land decides he wants it back in a hurry. Land in downtown Vancouver is just too valuable to permanently park a garden in the midst of it. The raised beds also separate soil and plants from contaminated soil.

He has also tried to maximize precious space by growing plants such as strawberries in vertical tubes.

Best small-scale project

John Campbell, president and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, the government agency that governs waterfront development in the city, called those dusty, barren, derelict spots beneath Toronto's highway off-ramps "the place where trolls live."

But not any more in this novel $9.5-million renewal in the Don Lands area east of downtown. Underpass Park is now a lively community hub with basketball courts, a playground and a skateboard park on land that was once used by the Toronto Salt Works, a varnish factory, metal and iron operations with scrap yards, and paint mixing facilities.

Contamination? "You name it, we've got it," Mr. Campbell said. "You have sodium absorption from all the road salt. You have metal and all sorts of stuff from the industrial uses of the time, when people didn't pay much attention to what they did with their effluent."

Now there's a hard cap of cement separating the users from the contaminants in some areas, then a soft cap of clay and soil on top of one to two metres of fill – a place for plants.

Mr. Miller says Underpass Park won its category because it brought something special to an area that had been overlooked and neglected and has improved the public realm.

A second phase, with a $3.5-million budget, is expected to be finished next spring. For now, the place is filled with light, with LED spotlights bouncing off 57 mirrored stainless steel surfaces attached to the underside of the Richmond/Adelaide underpass. It's a well-lit, well-used area.