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Turf That Grass?


Friday, March 15th, 2013


The other day I was reading about UofT plans to convert their large playing field to synthetic grass. The decision to support this idea or not has been posed by the media as a comparison between the cost of injuries and reduced playing time on the field due to poor site conditions verses the ecological benefits of natural grass. In these situations social concerns usually take precedence.

I would venture to guess that if it were not for the fact that synthetic turf is significantly more expensive we would be seeing a lot more synthetic turf than we do now regardless of environmental concerns. What I find interesting about this story is the argument for and against synthetic turf in this situation are not clear cut between good and bad when you explore the issues a little deeper. Consider regular turf for instance, clearly this choice has been put forward in the narrative of the story as the “natural” choice. However, it is well known that the sod industry has an environmental impact in their production process. Furthermore natural grass does not do well beyond its capacity to accommodate traffic and compaction (several of our more popular parks such as Dufferin Grove come to mind). Compaction and high traffic in parks were a hot topic last year when the city decided not to issue permits for the popular festival Afrofest traditionally held at Queens Park. I read the document released by the city and concerns regarding compaction and damage to grass and trees were paramount in that decision. I approach this issue first by looking at carrying capacity. If we accept the premise that the field is a mud pit with risk of injury for players, and a shorter season, the university has two options: Estimate the amount of use that the field can handle and set limits to its use, or look at alternatives. We can safely assume that due to the current lack of open space for outdoor activities the university would be unlikely to consider the first option. Considering synthetic turf probably seemed like the obvious next step. The high cost of synthetic turf could have ruled out this option but due to the  imminent arrival of the Pan Am games economic considerations appear to have been overcome. Other financial considerations would need to factor in maintenance. Maintaining grass does take significant labour, resources and energy. Synthetic grass on the other hand is often described as maintenance free. In my opinion leaves falling from adjacent trees would still need to be removed. Also synthetic grass needs to be cleaned periodically with water, garbage removed and repairs made. Moving on from financial matters one should take into account social considerations. The university is arguing that synthetic grass makes sense due to the anticipated reduction of injuries and increased playing time for participants. I think these are strong arguments assuming that usage rates will always remain above the capacity of natural grass. Other social issues to consider would be non sports usage. It is my experience that synthetic lawns are not as comfortable to sit and hang out on as the real thing. One reason for this is they tend to heat up in warm weather. Finally we can consider the environmental benefits and costs of each option. Unfortunately this part of the equation is the least likely to sway the decision making process. It is important to highlight that grass does provide ecological services such as temperature regulation, habitat and water cycling. Furthermore synthetic grass is often installed on an aggregate base requiring removal of valuable top soil. Comparing the ecological impact of sod production and synthetic grass manufacturing would be an exercise in comparing apples and oranges and is beyond the scope of this post.

Another interesting dimension of this debate is politics and public opinion. Recently Margaret Atwood entered the fray threatening to withdraw support for her former alma mater if they do not change course.  In addition our own horticultural trade association Landscape Ontario has sent the petition that been making the rounds out to its membership for their consideration. I find the kneejerk reaction of most horticulture types I have spoken with are against synthetic grass in general and do not support its use at UofT. It is my opinion that these same people are also the ones promoting alternatives to lawn, this indicates to me that this issue has galvanized support amongst some unlikely bedfellows. Leaving public opinion and politics aside for the moment, lets consider what we know.

Synthetic grass will likely expand the usable season, increase capacity for activities, likely reduce injuries and provide a consistent surface to play on. Sod provides ecological services such as cooling. Natural grass does have some limitations with capacity and is prone to compaction. The initial cost of installation for synthetic grass is likely much higher than resodding but maintenance would likely cost less over time. Finally public opinion and politics have pitted sod growers and gardeners against UofT and synthetic grass in general. After reviewing the issues and discussing it amongst my colleages I am convinced a hybrid solution would provide the most benefit. Why not use synthetic grass for the playing area itself and resod the rest? The university will have solved the injury/short season problem without eliminating all of the benefits of natural grass. Another approach would be to quantify the cooling benefit lost from the removal of grass and plant an appropriate number of trees around the perimeter. This would have the added benefit of shading spectators, non athletes and the general public who are coming to enjoy a little greenspace. I am curious to know what you all think.






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One comment on “Turf That Grass?”

  • Jonas Spring says:

    here is what Paul Gazzola had to say:
    interesting read and a well balanced article. Good idea not to enter into the environmental side too much, you’ll be crunching carbon numbers for days! Your suggestion of a pitch “fusion” is an interesting concept although not sure on the logistics (cutting grass around a turf area). I love the tree idea but I’ve yet to see turf fields with trees next to it, I presume its to prevent destruction of the foundation by roots. However there’s no reason there can’t be potted trees and plants can’t be stuck around? And any street cleaning machine can quickly vaccuum up leaves and send them to the compost!

    I’m quite suprised that this is creating such an havoc between the public, staff and the Uni. For mondern cities and sports areas the artificial turf is an essential part of the facilities. From my perspective as a sports player, the turf is far beyond the capabilities of grass. That’s not to say that I prefer it over grass, I love playing on a well kept pitch, but the reality is its only usable for 2-3 months max, as the article points out. In high rainfall areas (i.e Vancity) or the complete opposite (i.e. Edmonton), if a council/uni wants to maximise playing time then grass isn’t worth a penny.

    From an agroecological view, these are my thoughts about its “sustainability” (obviously heavily biased due to my sports background!):

    1. Social – Looking at Burnaby Lake Complex as an example, they started with 3 turf pitches which immediately drew in teams of soccer and field hockey not only from around the municipality but from other areas as well, also including provincial and national teams. It also started to host tournaments when all other fields would be considered unplayable plus you can throw in playing times until 11pm at night (obviously with lighting). This is due to the benefits you mentioned about increased carrying capacity. This means more activity for kids who would otherwise be stuck at home because the “game was cancelled” and more social interaction with their teammates. There is also the bonus that its open to everyone in the community for every type of grass based sport.

    From an athlete’s point of view, playing on turf during cold weather or rainy days is a blessing. Its much more consistent and reliant and, with today’s technology, they aren’t too far off from a grass pitch. I’m not convinced about the injuries, twisted ankles or strained muscles still occur on turf, just in different ways. One still has to be agile and resistent to play on either.

    2. Economic – Burnaby Lake went from 3 to 5 turf fields, have finished a 6th and I was told, last time I was home, that they still want to put in more because of so much demand (so perhaps by now they’ve already built them!). There is no doubt, in my mind, that turf fields are much more profitable than grass. In the case of UoT, I believe they will easily create cashflow with the pitches by renting it out to local teams and this is year-round since no rest time is needed. Surely in the heart of Toronto there are teams and organisations screaming out for more playing time. You already discussed other economical benefits.

    3. Environmental – Difficult to provide any good points for turf. In fact, I never realized that lead toxicity was a concern! However, if there is one point to consider its that shifting the increased use onto a turf reduces the amount of other fields needed. Again, going back to the almighty Burnably Lake example, the 3 origional grass fields where I grew up playing were quickly made obsolete by the turf pitches. They became more occupied by grazing Canadian geese than by people. So there may be an argument that proper use and distribution of turf fields may actually decrease pressure from other areas thus opening up more green spaces for other uses. Thus, does concentrating capacity onto turf actually decrease overall compaction for all surrounding fields? This would increase airation and water absorption. Interesting question but doubt there is any data to help answer it. Having said that, in no way can one argue that turf is more environmental due to the other issues raised (temperature, wildlife, etc.)

    So, my argument is that turf can be considered sustainable as it fulfills the social and economic aspects. The evironmental aspect still needs more data to show if drainage and chemical residues do severely effect water sequestrastion and contamination. If so, I’m sure there are a few innovative people that could help solve the issue.

    those are my 2 cents.
    lots of love to you and Dez,

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