Vacant Military Bases Get Second Life as Sustainable Spaces

By Heather Hassel-Finnegan | Healthy Cities & Urban Planning, Urban Design

To military towns, BRAC is a dreaded four letter word.  BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Commissions are non-partisan groups charged with determining which military installations should be closed and/or reorganized. Following the end of the Cold War, the military found itself with sprawling, often unnecessary, and extremely costly property holdings. A series of base closures initiated between 1989 to 2005 left approximately 350 former military installations vacant across the country. The loss of these installations ripped at the fabric of local communities. Jobs were lost, the local economy suffered, citizens were forced to relocate, and aging infrastructure was left behind.

For the communities affected by the loss of military installations, recovery is slow and arduous. The federal government instituted policies that encourage reuse and facilitate community involvement in the planning process. But the properties often have significant environmental contamination that must be remediated. And there are large financial obstacles to redeveloping properties, especially in rural or low property-value locals.  But there is hope. The properties below are phoenixes, reborn from the ashes of former military installations, as sustainable community spaces:


A rendering of the Navy Yard as a sustainable business campus in Philadelphia, PA. Image via

The Navy Yard, Philadelphia PA

The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was shuttered in 1995. In the intervening decades, the 1,200 acre space has been transformed into a green business campus called The Navy Yard that is home to medical facilities, pharmaceutical companies, corporate headquarters, manufacturing facilities, and educational institutions. Historic buildings have been thoughtfully redesigned for modern usage, and several new buildings have been built to rigorous LEED Platinum standards. The Navy Yard’s master plan includes a network of open spaces for the public benefit. These spaces include an accessible waterfront walkway, sporting fields, park-like open spaces, and walking trails. Several sustainability features, such as the proposed Reflecting Pools and Parking Lot Greenways, add natural elements to the space while also managing storm water runoff. The next phase of the Master Plan will include a subway expansion that will dramatically improve the public transportation service offered to the campus. The project’s visionaries will tell you that integrating sustainability into the development process has been integral to the success of the project. Because of the sustainability commitment, The Navy Yard has attracted two consortia, the Smart Energy Campus and the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub, that are actively engaged in energy efficiency research.   Likewise, it has become the classroom for Philadelphia High School students enrolled in The Workshop School. These students are engaged in an interactive curriculum that centers around long-term projects, like designing highly efficient modular home kits. A place that once represented Philadelphia’s lost manufacturing prowess is now an incubator for a next generation of visionaries.


The balloon at Orange County Great Park, Irvine CA. Image via

Orange County Great Park, Irvine CA

The 4,700 acre El Torro Marine Corps Air Station was decommissioned in 1999. About a third of the property has been set aside to create the Orange County Great Park, which is being billed as “The First Great Metropolitan Park of the 21st century.” The first phase of development has given the city an urban farm that produces organic produce that is sold at an on-site farmer’s market. The fruit from a grove of orange trees is destined for local food banks.  Lawns, playing fields, ponds, and festival space abound. Complimenting these traditional park elements are a variety of educational spaces, including a Farm+Food lab, walkable historical timeline, ecology-themed playground, and arts complex. The strategic plan aims for the park to be energy neutral, powered by a combination of solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells, and anaerobic digesters that will be at the forefront of biomass energy production. Another primary goal is to regain ecological integrity by planting a lush native landscape and maintaining wildlife corridors. The park will have an internal transportation network that allows visitors to park their cars for the day, while still moving around and experiencing all that the park has to offer. Still in the early stages of development, the park has already received wide acclaim for its sustainable design and community outreach efforts.



Neighborhood plan of the Dunes on Monterey Bay, Marina CA. Image via City of Marina.

The Dunes on Monterey Bay, Marina CA

The closure of Fort Ord in 1994 was devastating to the local community. It precipitated a 30% population decline and 50% loss in employment in the town of Marina. The former base is now being redesigned as a mixed commercial and residential community that has been designated a Catalyst Project for the California Sustainable Strategies Pilot Program. Breaking the mold of typical subdivisions, the houses built on the site will be smaller in size with less open lawns. The community will feature walkable and bike-able retail and business park districts, so that residents can work and recreate in close proximity to their homes.  There will be a transportation hub featuring light rail to allows residents to travel easily into the surrounding region.  A substantial amount of the property has been set aside as a nature preserve, to protect endangered butterflies and salamanders. Hiking trails and the Fort Ord National Monument have made this area a local attraction. The hope is that this long vacant property will become a thriving community once more.

If your community group is interested in redeveloping a BRAC site, The National Association of Installation Developers has a helpful Reuse Planning guide. You can also check out the EPA’s Turning Bases Into Great Places guide.

About The Author

Heather Hassel-Finnegan
Heather is a Sustainability Specialist working in the healthcare industry. She is a LEED Accredited Professional and holds a Sustainability Professional Certificate. She has a background in Biology and Anthropology, and much of her past work focused on wildlife biology and conservation. Heather resides in the Philadelphia region with her husband and toddler daughters.