I’ve noticed economists often use the word, “green field” and “brown field” these days in TV talk shows when arguing the efficiency of governmental or corporate investment.

I also saw the comment of representative of Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), saying “Our interest is brown field. We don’t invest in green field” in an infra investment journal.

He meant it’s better for GIP to invest in the field where they can capitalize on their managerial expertise and investment technology than in the field they are unfamiliar and can’t be sure of return of investment.

Neither Cambridge nor Oxford English Dictionary carries ‘green field / brown field” as a word. Readers Plus English Japanese Dictionary (published by Kenkyusha) defines 'greenfield' as 'of underdeveloped area," with no mention of 'brownfield.'

GoogleNgram’shows incidence of ‘green field’ at high 0.000012% level, and ‘brown field’ low at 0.0000012% level in 2007. But I think the usages of both words are irrelevant to the above case.

When did “green field’ and ‘brown field’ as a pair come into use as an economic, or investment term, and who did arrange so?

  • Wikipedia has articles on greyfield land, brownfield land, greenfield land and greenfield project, if that helps.
    – Zebrafish
    Dec 11, 2018 at 15:27

3 Answers 3


The term greenfield was originally used for development projects on land that had never been built on.

In heavy industry, a greenfield project is a construction project to build a new oil well, refinery, chemical plant, etc. on a piece of land not previously used for that purpose, regardless of whether the land had been previously developed. For example, if you buy a junkyard and then build a natural gas processing plant on it, the new plant is a greenfield site even though the land was not green before you built on it.

A greenfield project is more complicated than a brownfield project, which is a project to expand capacity at an existing site: land and easements have to be sought, contracts for sale and transport of raw materials and finished product have to be negotiated from scratch, and the necessary licenses and permits are more numerous and difficult to obtain.

A related use of greenfield/brownfield occurs in the name of a US law: the "Brownfields law", signed by George W Bush in 2002, which limits liability for cleanup of "brownfield" sites for new owners. In the context of the law, a "brownfield" is a piece of land that formerly had polluting activities on it, and the land still has soil or water contamination that must be cleaned up.

If I could wager a guess, it would be as follows: the terms were first in use by business people in the heavy industry sector in a way that was only slightly metaphorical. Land at "greenfield" project sites could be truly green, but it could also be repurposed. Business people removed from heavy industry (e.g., financiers) began to use the term for its connotation of extra effort and complexity when talking about a capital project. Those factors are relevant for them even if their work doesn't involve buying land and building on it.

  • So where are the dates?
    – Kris
    Dec 15, 2013 at 5:42
  • @Kris no idea on the dates, but I had never heard of the usage pointed out by the OP. I wouldn't be surprised if it's 10 years old or less.
    – user31341
    Dec 15, 2013 at 14:38
  • @jlovegen. Are the words, ‘greenfield / brown field” specifically ‘space centric’ concept? - I mean, only applied to “geographically” underdeveloped / developed “area.”? Or can they also refer to technological “categories or genres” that investors wish to invest in? It appears to me that economists are using both words quite loosely in TV talk shows. Dec 15, 2013 at 23:56
  • 1
    @YoichiOishi from the examples you gave in the question, business analysts and investors seem to be using the term in a non-geographic sense. if I was a lexicographer for OED I'd suggest that they add a new sense to "greenfield". you might even send them a postcard suggesting it.
    – user31341
    Dec 16, 2013 at 3:25
  • @jlovegren From personal experience, I can attest that greenfield and brownfield were widely used in the 1980s in the context of hazardous waste cleanup and Superfund.
    – ab2
    Dec 11, 2018 at 17:07

I coined the term ‘brownfield’ in 1976, in a discussion between strategic planning teams from Strathclyde and Tyne & Wear, concerning the need to counterbalance pressures both areas faced for unsustainable greenfield development. It was first used in print by Strathclyde. This can be corroborated by Vince Goodstadt who led the Strathclyde team (and was later President of RTPI). Alan Wenban-Smith, former Structure Plan Team Leader, Tyne & Wear (1975-81)

  • wow, you are the originator of the word, brownfield. What’s a coincidence! It’s a rare chance to meet the coiner of a buzzword, which was invented more than 30 years ago, according to you. It’s great. Nice to meet you. Jan 21, 2019 at 11:38

The investment terms greenfield and brownfield were no doubt borrowed from their everyday counterparts greenfield and brownfield:

greenfield, n.: denoting or located in a rural area which has not previously been built on: new factories were erected on greenfield sites

brownfield, n.: denoting or located in an urban area that has previously been built on: Hampshire has many brownfield developments

M-W lists 1962 as the first known use of greenfield, and and 1977 as the first known use of brownfield, but does not mention their provenance. They were likely just compounded from green + field and brown + field.

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