In the context of sustainable city planning, we observe in recent years an increasing policy interest in urban environmental quality management in relation to land use. The potential for sustainable land use solutions in urban areas is often severely hampered by the existence of unacceptably high levels of soil pollution. The present paper aims to identify the critical success factors for an effective clean-up policy for these areas. After a review of issues, backgrounds and prospects, the paper attempts to offer a qualitative impact assessment model, which encapsulates an expert system for brownfield development in relation to clean-up targets for polluted sites. Next, a case study approach to various soil pollution cases in The Netherlands is carried out to test the feasibility of the above-mentioned analytical framework. A subsequent step consists of the use of modern meta-analytic techniques for comparative research and research synthesis in order to trace the drivers of failure or success in brownfield development policy in urban areas. The particular method employed here, rough set analysis, appears to be able to identify the conditions - in terms of packages of drivers - under which such urban policies are likely to be successful. © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.