C.U.S.R.P. - Myrttinen - Studies for the reconversion
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Studies for the reconversion of military bases

to civilian uses


Henri Myrttinen


(Bonn International Center for Conversion)


One of the most visible signs of the disarmament wave that followedthe end of the Cold War was the closure of thousands of military bases,especially in North America and Europe, which then became available forcivilian reuse.

At the same time, the end of armed conflicts and decolonisation ledto base closures in places as diverse as Northern Ireland, Hong Kong, thePhilippines, Panama or South Africa. Between 1989 and the mid-nineties,over 8 000 military installations and facilities covering over one millionhectares were handed over for civilian use.

While the after-effects of this post-Cold War closure wave were stillbeing felt in many affected communities, the restructuring of armed forces­ especially in Europe ­ has brought about a second wave of closures.These closures are set to continue in the future as especially the Europeanand American armed forces are becoming increasingly mobile and technologicallysophisticated. Thus, based closures and conversion can not really be seenas peace-building measures. Increasingly, they are side-effects of a processaimed at allowing armed forces to buy new equipment and being more ableto participate in foreign interventions.

The negative impacts of base closures include:

However, in spite of these problems, base closure and conversion is above all a chance for regions that have been dependent on the military to reorientate economically, socially and culturally. Formerly militarised municipalities have the opportunity to turn their former “garrison town” into a civilian community, creating a more sustainable and viable economic base, as well as opening up formerly closed-off areas for public access.

When a military base closure is announced, more often than not the community and municipality will do what it can to try to reverse the closure. Theloss of jobs is feared as are the social implications. Often, towns which have had a military base for decades or even centuries see the presenceof a military unit as an essential part of the town’s image or character.What is often overlooked, however, is that the jobs provided by the militaryare usually not of a very high level. Civilians may be employed as cleaners,cooks, drivers and the like and much of the secondary employment createdoften tends to be more in the small-scale “entertainment” business forthe soldiers, i.e. bars, restaurants, discos and brothels. Nonetheless,especially for structurally weak areas, the loss of these jobs can be aharsh blow. The challenge then is to use the area and facilities whichhave been made available by the withdrawal to create more meaningful employmentopportunities. An example from Germany is the former British air base atWildenrath, which was one of the main employers in a region with few otheremployment opportunities. Following the closure of the air base, it hasnow become a railway technology centre, providing more, better paid andhigher qualified jobs than the old air base. A particular problem is ofcourse the reintegration of the former base workers into the redevelopedarea, meaning that for example former drivers or security guards need tobe retrained. In the case of foreign bases, another problem may be thatthe civilian employees have foreign qualifications, e.g. an Italian workingon an American base in Italy may have received an American qualificationwhich is then not recognised on the Italian labour market.

Apart from worries about the impact on the employment and economic situationof a town, the social impact is also a concern, especially for smallermunicipalities, where for example the continued running of a school maydepend on the presence of military families. On the other hand, the facilitieswhich have become available can be used to attract new residents (e.g.low-cost housing for young families) or to meet social and cultural needsof the municipality. These may be additional hospital facilities, highereducation centres, schools, cultural facilities or new green areas foroutdoor recreation.

Next to the economic and social concerns, one major difficulty withreusing former military sites are the environmental problems which, unfortunately,are often found at these sites. The military as an organisation uses avast amount of potentially harmful chemicals and often, through accidents,bad maintenance, negligence and sometimes even deliberate dumping, thesechemicals are left behind in the soil and groundwater after the militarypulls out. By far the most common problem are petroleum products, whichare sometimes found in vast amounts, but the list ranges from pesticidesand herbicides over to heavy metals and solvents, from residues of explosivesto PCBs and dioxins. Often, the infrastructure which is left behind isin such a bad condition that it can be only classified as constructionwaste. The most acute problem, however, are unexploded shells, bombs, minesand the like, which are especially found at old training areas. On theother hand, the fact that the military closed these areas off often fordecades, means that flora and fauna that has become extinct elsewhere hasbeen able to survive. Thus, in eastern Germany for example, a number ofthe former training areas have been converted into nature reserves oncethey have been cleared of unexploded ammunition.

Judging by the experiences of over a decade of base conversion following the end of the Cold War, most municipalities have, in the long run, benefited from the withdrawal of the military. It is by no means an easy or quickprocess, and often demands outside assistance to the affected municipalities.Some successful and creative conversion solutions include: