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Real City Matters

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University of Toronto Says “No” to Grass

Plans to build an artificial-turf field on U of T's back campus have sparked furious backlash.

The back campus field, seen from above  Photo by Lychee Aloe, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

The back campus field, seen from above. Photo by Lychee_Aloe, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

A plan to construct two Olympic-sized artificial field-hockey pitches at the University of Toronto is facing opposition, in large part because of what the fake grass would replace: a patch of natural grass known as the back campus field, located just south of Hoskin Avenue. It’s currently a public space, sometimes used for intramural sports.

Alan Ackerman, a professor of English and drama at the university, is the founder of a protest group called Keep Back Campus Green. “There are several key reasons for getting involved [in a protest],” he says. “One of them is that it’s a heritage landscape, and that’s not just a central part of our central U of T campus, but also part of downtown. The plan will literally change and tear out the fabric of the downtown campus.”

The field hockey pitches are an initiative of U of T’s Faculty of Kineseology and Physical Education, which is contributing a little less than half the total cost of $9.5 million. The federal and provincial governments are covering the rest, in the hopes of having the artificial fields ready in time for Toronto’s 2015 Pan Am Games, so they can be used as venues. Construction is set to start in July.

Ackerman’s concerns are more than simply aesthetic. “Tearing out that natural surface and replacing it with artificial turf raises basic environmental questions and concerns that we have, one of them being that it will generate a lot of heat.”

A visualization of heat island effects on U of T’s campus. Image courtesy of John Danahy.

Professor John Danahy, an associate at U of T’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, is a supporter of Ackerman’s group. He has created “heat island” models of the downtown core, one of which compares the Varsity Stadium artificial turf to surrounding areas, including the back campus field. Varsity Stadium, indicated by the yellow arrow in the image above, is the hottest surface. The back campus field, meanwhile, is one of the coolest. Danahy believes the back campus would become yet another heat sink if artificial turf were to be installed there.

Ackerman and his group are also concerned about the possibility that casual users won’t be allowed to use an artificial field. As it stands, the back campus is considered a “University Open Space,” available for recreational sports or any public use. The Faculty of Kineseology and Physical Education maintains that the field will remain available. “All of the major activities that happen on the field will continue. They will, however, be able to do it in a maximized format,” says Anita Comella, assistant dean at the faculty. “We’re not interested in reducing use. We want to increase it.”

But Ackerman isn’t convinced. “In spite of the administration’s claims that there will still be lots of access, they’re going to construct more fencing around it,” he says. “The [turf’s] manufacturer’s manual is explicit in the fact that ‘casual’ use of the turf should be prohibited if it’s going to be maintained for ‘high performance athletes.’ You can’t do a lot of the casual activities—let alone sports—you would do otherwise.”

The faculty admits that accommodating athletes, even after the 2015 Pan Am Games, is the goal. “The legacy, and that was our primary interest after the games, is certainly for multi-sport,” says Comella.

An Infrastructure Ontario project agreement lists B+H Architects as the project’s architectural consultant, and the firm’s website has a rendering of what the finished artificial fields would look like.

The back campus field, last week. Photo by Rachel Bulatovich/Torontoist.

The existing, natural back campus field has its own problems. For the last several years the university has repaired it, only for it to be obliterated by a sea of mud in a few weeks. “I will take natural turf any day,” says Comella. “Our issue is that you have to spend more time maintaining and treating it than you do playing on it.”

But Ackerman thinks the faculty is ignoring other options. “There are new technologies that can be incorporated with natural surfaces. So why not do that?” he wonders aloud. “The answer? That’s not what the Pan Am Games require. It’s not being driven by the needs of U of T, it’s being driven by the needs of the Pan Am Games.”

Danahy is of a similar opinion. “The back campus is not a state-of-the-art natural surface, it’s a left over that has never been professionally designed,” he says. “The money should go toward a living surface solution, given that sports [with artificial turf] already account for the worst heat island effects.”

“I find a disappointing absence of leadership and modeling behavior on an institutional level with regard to both the environmental and sustainability issues, and the issue of balancing the values of a broad set of stakeholders over a very rare heritage landscape.”

CORRECTION: April 4, 2013, 11:15 AM This article originally said that Anita Comella admitted, in an interview, that an artificial-turf field on U of T’s back campus would be used to accommodate “skilled athletes.” In fact, her admission was that the field would be used to accommodate athletes of all skill levels. The article has been altered to reflect this.

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