Activism

Crowdsource Abandoned Brownfield List

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 29, 2010

Reading yesterday's Spectator editorial on the public's right to know the locations of the city's abandoned buildings - the City has an incomplete list but won't share it - it occurred to me that concerned citizens should just go ahead and start compiling a list ourselves.

We could do it with a wiki-style web application that captures the address, GPS coordinates, ownership (if available), description of the site, photos, and so on. It wouldn't be that hard to build and would only require a dedicated group of citizen curators to populate and maintain it.

Is anyone interested in something like this?

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Ancopa (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 08:09:11

I like the idea of the information being available to the general public, but my concern is that free access to said information could turn it into a real estate listing for people looking to relocate their growing meth lab or grow op.

Any ideas on how to prevent that from happening while still keeping citizens in the loop?

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 08:16:35

I believe greater awareness of these vacant properties will bring more attention to their status. It's our not knowing where these places are, and whether they're vacant, that allows activities to remain hidden. Look what happened as a result of the latest Matt Jelly find, it led to the discovery of a grow-op. Until the status of the site was brought into public view, the authorities hadn't been paying any attention to it.

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By frank (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 08:21:46

If I had access to a list I would know what places to keep an eye on in my neighborhood and that includes illegal dumping as well as grow ops. The fear of the list of derelict buildings causing a boom in squatting/grow ops etc is entirely unfounded...

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 08:36:43

I like the idea of the information being available to the general public, but my concern is that free access to said information could turn it into a real estate listing for people looking to relocate their growing meth lab or grow op.

You make a valid point (so I'm disappointed that you got a downvote), but it wouldn't just be citizens that have access to the list. City employees, police and neighbourhood groups would also be able to access it, it's no different than what we created for the By-Law Crawl. The more people we have watching a property, the more difficult it will be for those who want to use them illegally.

I'm definitely interested in helping out Ryan.

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 08:41:52

This type of data would be best organized using the government's property dataset as the framework for the assignment of status, as it contains all the individual land parcel data; coordinates, address, ownership, etc. Trouble is, it's been developed by Teranet and a license is expensive and there are numerous restrictions on the use of the dataset.

What may be easiest is to generate and maintain our own data through such a web portal suggested above. We'd then populate a web map with our data. Google maps could serve as the background, with each identified site appearing on the map along with details.

I'm interested in helping with this project, having some recently acquired GIS skills I wish to apply and develop further.

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By Ancopa (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 08:44:37

If I had access to a list I would know what places to keep an eye on in my neighborhood and that includes illegal dumping as well as grow ops.

That's all well and good if there are people like you living near all of the abandoned buildings in the city, but what of the ones deep in industrial areas?

I don't think that the list will necessarily spur new grow ops or meth labs, but it could potentially help criminals find a better location then they are already using.

And again, I'm not saying that this information should be withheld from the public, but wouldn't it be prudent to attach at least some sort of safeguard to it?

Comment edited by Ancopa on 2010-07-29 07:45:00

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 08:56:35

What may be easiest is to generate and maintain our own data through such a web portal suggested above. We'd then populate a web map with our data. Google maps could serve as the background, with each identified site appearing on the map along with details.

This is pretty much exactly what I did for the By-Law Crawl. I created an online form that dumps the required information to a GoogleDocs spreadsheet, this spreadsheet in turn gets read by another page which uses the GoogleMaps API to build the main map. The only manual step was using an online tool to geocode the addresses to latitudes and longitudes, but that's easy to do. You can see my alpha version here. Unfortunately the free webhost I was using for testing deleted my account so I lost my better looking beta version but you get the jist of it I think.

And again, I'm not saying that this information should be withheld from the public, but wouldn't it be prudent to attach at least some sort of safeguard to it?

What did you have in mind? Maybe after each property is confirmed and located an automatic email is sent to the city's bylaw enforcement department and the police?

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By Jarod (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 09:01:59

I really like the idea. A lot.

At the risk of being a moderately wet blanket, I would ask though, is there a way those who are going to investigate these possible locations can do this safely.

I know, I know, people have been living around these areas for decades and have been subject to the contamination. But the truth is, some of the things we may find have been and can be extremely dangerous, even to be in their presence.

It would be a terrible shame should something happen and we lose or damage the health and well being of one of these noble people.

Is there any way that we can make sure this is done in a safe manner? I'm not saying, "We're going barrel jumping! Wanna come?" But we should be as safe as humanly possible right?

Maybe what I'm lacking is clarity. Are we looking at investigative site similar to the noble Mr. Jelly? Or are we looking at walk-by notation?

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted July 29, 2010 at 10:27:24

my concern is that free access to said information could turn it into a real estate listing for people looking to relocate their growing meth lab or grow op.

Some valid concerns indeed, although a later comment about the city and police being made aware does seem to make me believe these sites would get the attention they deserve, therefore making them safer rather than dangerous because everyone knows about them. Parents need to inform their kids that these buildings aren't haunted houses like they see on television. Just the air touching your skin in the presences of some of these sites can prove dangerous.

Maybe what I'm lacking is clarity. Are we looking at investigative site similar to the noble Mr. Jelly? Or are we looking at walk-by notation?

Perhaps the public could inform people like Matt Jelly who do the dirty work checking out our concerns in a safe manner, and then these same people bring it up to the city and from their it get's input into this database.

I don't think you want the entire city sleauthing like this for safety reasons, but I love the idea Ryan and I would love to help. I make maps for a living although our company hasn't moved up to the wonderful world of GIS yet. Arggh...

I called the city once on a new house being built on my street because they were leaving a mess, cracked the laneway when they poured the foundation, no fences were put up so any kid or animal could have fell in the hole, people were dumping and looting there and the property was a mess for the longest time. Next thing you know the place is boarded up before it's finished, and it's been like that for at least 6 months now. Guess they weren't following code.

There are many houses I 'question' in our area, but other than contacting a council member, it would be nice to know the direct person you could talk to instead of a round about away because next thing you know your email is getting sent around with your name on it and I don't think that is safe for citizens. It should be an anonomous thing so people can feel comfortable for their safety. Who knows what someone is capable of if they found out your big mouth cost them a tonne of money.

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By frank (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 10:42:35

I don't believe that being concerned about people habiting abandoned buildings whether they be in deep industrial areas or not is a valid concern at all! Do you think that the homeless/transients in those areas aren't aware that they're abandoned? If anything it would increase the security of those buildings as the owners would know that other people know they're abandoned and they'd be held responsible for issues resulting from poor maintenance/fencing/security on their properties.

Lawrence, you're able to make a phone call to the bylaw office and if I'm not mistaken you don't have to provide a name - as always, if you don't want paper trail, don't email.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 10:57:24

I like the idea of the information being available to the general public, but my concern is that free access to said information could turn it into a real estate listing for people looking to relocate their growing meth lab or grow op.

People didn't seem to have trouble identifying these buildings as good sites for grow ops in the absence of a crowdsourced brownfield list.

Comment edited by John Neary on 2010-07-29 09:57:59

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By Hm? (anonymous) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 10:58:57

Spectator:"$1 million grow-op at suspected toxic site"

Now we know why people were rooting around here!!!! lol

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 11:01:01

Incidentally, the same Spectator article (by Nicole O'Reilly) mentions that the city categorizes 350 Wentworth as a "potential" brownfield. If we needed any more proof that the city has classified brownfields out of existence, we now have it.

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By Jarod (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 11:12:44

I think any attempt to conceal information of discovered sites will only further hinder us. I say that because that's what has been happening for all these years. The public has no idea they're there in the first place.

The more information the public has, the more likely a) people in those communities are going to raise their voices (because really, who is going to hear "Oh, by the way, you have a dangerous toxic waste dump in your neighborhood" and is going to be okay with it?) or b) the city will take some kind of immediate action either preventative measures at entry points or a direct initiative to clean it up.

There are sources and people who don't want this information out there, the very people using these properties as an illegal dump, growth op...you name it.

I would even go as far to say that I feel more concerned for the safety and well being of those so-called transients living in or hanging around these sites. Eventually someone will die or become seriously injured as a result of being on these properties.

I wonder if there is any leeching (I can probably guess there is) into the soil and so forth, and would be curious to know if there has been any related injuries/deaths from long term exposure...

...slippery slope we've found ourselves on.

But yeah, in conclusion, full disclosure has many more advantages than partial disclosure and hoping to protect ourselves from any information gleaned.

as an edit, since I went back up a re-read some posts..the concern that I have for people dwelling or visiting these locations is not that this information will be used as a real estate listing, but more that the concern is for the people themselves....as this is ultimately what this is about; the health and safety of our environment and how that directly effects the people and their well being in this city and around the world. Because being environmentally friendly begins locally and spreads to a global mindset.

Comment edited by Jarod on 2010-07-29 10:19:26

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 18:16:12

Thanks UrbanRenaissance for directing me to your pages. You are way ahead of me on this, as it seems your setup could be easily adapted to other themes. I'm not a web designer/developer, but wish to help if I can.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted July 29, 2010 at 18:43:56

You can count on me Ryan and friends.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 29, 2010 at 21:49:43

There already is a list to base this off, at uer.ca, which lists abandoned buildings and other "urban exploration" hotspots extensively by region, and there's a few dozen in Hamilton's if I remember.

By creating a list we're doing what anyone who runs a meth lab is terrified of - shining light on the subject. Will this list lead to more urban explorers and squatters? Probably. But neither of these groups are terribly harmful (where would you prefer homeless people sleep when it's raining?), and both would be well served by a solid list of which sites are contaminated (also something which would diminish potential legal liabilities-something everyone wants in these situations).

If you doubt the power of squatters to transform a space, go to Amsterdam. If you want to see developers leave them to rot, stay here.

Ever been to the Hermitage in Dundas? There's a set of ruins turned into a beautiful park. People have picnics and walk their dogs there. And if they climb up the old brickwork and hurt themselves, it's their own damn fault. How about tidying up one of these old ruined factories and turning it into a park? People love this stuff...I remember finding a family with kids and a dog wandering the open ruins of the old Thistle Club at one point - we gave 'em a tour. And then there's the potential as a venue...

What better uniquely Hamilton waterfront tourist attraction could we ask for?

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 29, 2010 at 22:16:54

That's a cool idea Undustrial. The problem is that there's huge difference between an abandoned 19th century estate and 20th century industrial sites where the soil itself may be dangerously toxic. These brownfields can't just be left to rot; even if squatters move in and fix up the structures the pollutants in the soil will only continue to leech and spread if they aren't remediated properly.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 30, 2010 at 09:08:07

Oh, believe me, as an explorer and a squatter (as well as someone who's generally opposed to poisoning) some of these sites scare the living bejezzus out of me. Still, to characterize them all as radioactive would be a generalization - some could be cleaned up pretty easily (think about the Lakeport plant).

Does definitely underscore the need to study, test and remediate immediately wherever necessary. The price will not go down if we wait, and the damage will only spread. Forget a park there - what about parks nearby? Or the birds, cats and racoons who freely wander onto these sites?

And don't tell me it's going to be cheaper if we wait. The Randle Reef pricetag has put on between $5 and $15 million in the last few years.

I can't legally own a switchblade, or buy a dime bag, for fear of their dangerous potential. And yet if I wanted to buy a big open vacant lot and stack it with leaking vats with deadly chemicals, that's fine. Heck - even contrast this to Ben's renovation permit adventures. Wouldn't it be nice to be a corporation?

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted August 03, 2010 at 12:16:05

I like this idea a lot. Ryan Danks/UrbanRenaissance was our mapping expert throughout By-Law Crawl- I had a feeling this idea would blossom.

I asked By-Law staff before the crawls started if there was a list- and I was given the same answer, that it would endanger the public to release that info, and that they really didn't have a procedure for listing properties when they become vacant.

I'd argue that the public is in more danger not knowing. Overall, this could lead to much more effective measures to secure some of the nastiest sites, and to inform the public about what kind of materials are being left behind in their neighbourhoods. And maybe we'll see the City and higher levels of government do something about this- it's an epidemic.

I'd be glad to be involved with this group. Thanks for starting this initiative, Ryan.

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By agata (registered) - website | Posted August 03, 2010 at 13:07:20

I would think that people looking to start meth labs and illegal activity already know a lot more about these abandoned sites, than we do. I mean, they would be the ones interested in finding them so, I'm pretty sure they are well ahead of us.

If anything, drawing attention to this is a great idea... I'm up for helping out. I know of one house backing up into my yard that is most definitely abandoned and I would love it if places like this were forced to get cleaned up or at least looked after a little more.

Keep me posted and let me know when this gets going!

whitecollargreensoul@gmail.com

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