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cityscape

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.

Comments

  • http://www.kenmccartney.com/ Ken McCartney

    I don’t exactly buy it. Having walked past the back campus daily 8 months a year for 5 years (yeah yeah), the only group using it was the lacrosse team, and rarely at that. No one ever walked across it in the spring, because it has always been really muddy. If people are congregating at a green area, it’s going to be the front campus.

    • t-dawg

      I play powderpuff football along with 80 other girls. We have our practice sessions there, from late September until early march. Couple of times a week, 7-9 am, we were there during the coldest of days and saw some really pretty sunrises. Back campus means a lot to us. Maybe you’re just walking there during the wrong times, u know students athletes have class too. Lots of people go there to play soccer, frisbee, etc.

      • iSkyscraper

        If you are practicing football from late Sept to early March you will do much better with a turf field. As for who uses the surface, that’s a programming issue to work out with the school. But it is quite accepted to take rec fields in public spaces now and install turf.

    • Wesley

      I agree with t-dawg, my dragonboat team enjoy their 7am/9am practices at the backfield. Although the practices are mainly during the weekend, this space really provides the environment for training. Problem getting muddy? Then throw in the towel because regardless of the condition true athletes who do it for their love of the game not because it’s not “aesthetically pleasing.” In addition, I’ve seen people play ultimate frisbee, flag football, and soccer in addition to lacrosse.

      During the summer months I’ve seen several students hanging out on the backfield and who can blame them? It’s a beautiful space with a grassy, dirt scent that beats the smell of plastic warmed up by the heat.

    • Sean

      Ken, I have been on campus for ten years, and I find it absolutely incredible that you would even claim that no one is using it. There are regularly softball, rugby, soccer, and flag football matches on the field, every day during the summer, as well as the mentioned lacrosse and the morning organized practices. It is also frequently used by students playing lighter games, such as frisbee and catch and serves a variety of other uses, for outdoor events as well.

    • Eileen Kim

      My department’s softball team uses the back campus regularly during the summer months for practice. I also see people using the space at all times of the day throughout the year, whether walking their dogs or running first thing in the morning, leading groups of little day campers in outdoor games, teams having practice, or people just lounging and enjoying the sun.

      • dogger

        If you see someone walking their dog, tell them to get off. Dogs are NOT allowed on the field.

  • Nick

    I wonder if the people who are protesting against the artificial surface have ever actually had to play on the field…

    • Wesley

      yes we do play on the field :)

    • Sean

      Every Summer during the softball season–I would take it muddy over artificial turf any day of the week. And that is assuming that they will even let us continue to have the graduate students’ softball league practice there, which is far from certain.

  • http://www.facebook.com/czernobog Jeremy Vernon

    I played with my dog on a daily basis on that field, as did many others – astro-turf would ruin it for him and me (not to mention give us heat stroke in the summer). Rugby, ultimate and even amateur informal games of catch, hacky-sack or footie sprung up regularly throughout the year.

    Moreover, the allegation that is not being used does not imply that it should be converted to plastic – it implies that it should be improved to be used by as diverse an audience as possible; and that clearly implies a natural turf, not some munged up nylon on neoprene and gravel.

    Also, I’ve played rugby, soccer and ultimate on artifical turf, it’s like playing on shag carpet – it’s awful.

    • dogger

      Scofflaw. Dogs are not allowed. You want to use the field, follow the rules. You want to save this field and you cannot even respect its rules.

  • curious

    What is the cost difference between artificial and “state-of-the-art-natural”?

  • Wesley

    Perhaps the money invested in artificial turf can be used to convert the backfield into a natural alternative. It was stated that the backfield is not “state of the art” so why not dig it up and produce a natural but still professional field? It satisfies the needs of the Pan Am games and people opposing the turf takeover.

    In addition, I’ve played on both surfaces before; turf is the less athlete friendly choice…I mean unless of course athletes, all of a sudden became too afraid of getting grass and mud stains. Try sliding on turf in comparison to sliding on grass before arguing in favour of an artificial solution.

    Although natural grass requires more maintenance in the short term, it is less costly in comparison to having to replace the turf every few months or so. Turf is usually an indoor alternative for a substitute for grass and is usually used for indoor arenas, exposing plastic to an external environment shortens the lifespan of turf and photobleaches the colour.

  • Bryan

    As a U of T alumnus in the graduating class of 2012, who has played a lot of sports on that field, I support the use of field turf. I suspect that the strategy is to concentrate sports that require field turf onto the backfield while the numerous other green spaces at U of T can support more casual recreation. For example, the front campus green, currently being used heavily for sports through the year, is ill suited for that purpose and can become the primary green space for casual recreation.

    • Risha

      Actually this will mean the end of of the rugby at UofT. The plan is to push rugby out completely (one of the longest standing sports at UofT.

    • S. W.

      “numerous other green spaces”

      There are only three green spaces of any size (enough to play any kind of sport) left at UofT, and one of them is exclusively controlled by Trinity College. This means that the vast majority of students playing recreational games would lose out to those playing some kind of organized sport. Not to mention that it would be an ugly blemish on the campus.

  • SteelesAvenue

    put this plastic garbage on top of a parking lot, not one of the last open spaces downtown! isn’t this sort of thing the reason U of T built Scarborough and Mississauga campus?

    • Winkee

      And downtowners wonder why people in the suburbs have an inferiority complex.

      • SteelesAvenue

        Hey man, they already decided to turn every available surface into parking lots. If anything, this hunk of toxic garbage is an improvement to them!
        Also, Downtowners dont wonder, they know why. because you cant even walk anywhere and the traffic is terrible, and often there are no trees or shade. If I was an anthropomorphized urban area and that was me, I’d feel pretty bad too.

  • https://paul.kishimoto.name/ Paul Kishimoto

    Like Wesley, I was with a UofT dragon boat team for 7 years. One of my fondest (?) sporting memories is throwing up on Back Campus snow as a F!rosh after running a “suicide” circuit during March tryouts. We used the field one to three times a week for exercises, as a base point for runs all over downtown (I still remember that the circumferential sidewalk is exactly 550 metres), and for coaching talks to avoid filling up the spaces of Hart House and the Athletic Centre with 30+ paddlers.

    Speaking of the AC, we also caught a lot of grief from the now-FKPE trying to use spaces they managed for the supposed good of the university community. As a sport neither varsity nor intramural (several UofT faculties and colleges have teams, but competitions are community organized and off-campus), dragon boat rated very little attention. Indoor practice spaces, Varsity Stadium, pools, etc. could only be rented, at inconvenient times, and for prohibitive prices, when the staff decided to answer our e-mails or accept our forms. Back Campus was free, so we used it, especially when the ground was frozen and so not muddy.

    FKPE has a new focus on “performance”. Rugby used the field, and rugby is being asked to die quietly. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/varsity-blues-rugby-forced-off-the-field/article5583589/ → “We need to decide: Do we want to be a competitive school?” said Beth Ali, a **former elite field hockey player**, now U of T’s director of intercollegiate sports.) When Anita Comella says “major activities” will happen in a “maximized format,” that sure as hell doesn’t mean as much freedom as now for casual use by non-FKPE-blessed groups or just random students who want to sit on some cool grass in the summer. Sorry, grass-sitting is not a “major activity”; go away.

    Much like the idea of a casino on Exhibition Place, some concentrated interests have decided they can make “better use” of a public space if only the inconvenient public would stop hanging around, doing the informal, spontaneous, enjoyable civic things that the public tends to do. Another parallel is the capture of support from unwary government officials for their plans to make physical changes (walls, fences, gates) which will help exclude current users.

  • Conservative Astroturf Brigade

    If they can rehabilitate the Front Campus every spring so it’s pretty for Convocation, surely they could do the same thing for Back Campus just prior to the event.

    If it’s a drainage problem, why couldn’t they do what farmers do and put in drain tile just below the frost line, then plant some durable species of grass on top of it? Beyond utility lines, have they actually ever done anything to improve that field since they planted grass atop an old farmers field 150 years ago? Hire whoever maintains golf courses, they know how to maintain abused grass.

  • tomwest

    “Danahy believes the back campus would become yet another heat sink if artificial turf were to be installed there.”
    Heat *source*, surely? If it was a heat sink, it would absorb heat and be cooler than the surrondings.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      Heat sinks absorb and then radiate heat, a heat source actively generates heat. Open your computer and you’ll probably find there’s a fan mounted directly to the heat sink, because it’s the hottest part of the motherboard.

      • tomwest

        So describing somethign as a heat sink doesn’t help uinless you say which the heat is moving.

  • iSkyscraper

    People on this site like to complain when politicians like Ford stick their head in the sand and ignore best practices in other cities on matters such as transit and casinos.

    Well guess what, that applies to recreational surfaces too, so quit whining.

    Here is a photo of a New York City park. It used to take a terrible beating from heavy use of its grass fields. So, like many other NYC parks, the field area is now artificial turf. The other areas (in the foreground) remain grass, but the artificial turf has greatly increased the number of people able to use the field year-round. This off-season photo pretty much explains this when you compare the condition of the real and artificial areas:

    http://www.nycgovparks.org/photo_gallery/full_size/17965.jpg

    As for heat concerns, much of that had to do with the rubber infill used on older fields. New ones use organic infill (coconut and cork chips) which is much cooler.

    Enough. Use your energy to fight to save streetcars, to get more trees downtown, to improve our streetscapes. U of T is doing nothing wrong here and if anything should be commended for improving access and bringing more recreational options to the campus.

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  • LavenderBlume

    Typical anthropocentric reaction: basing the value of a natural feature solely on whether or how humans use it. The natural environment has its own functions and value. On that basis alone, using astro-turf is the wrong decision.

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  • http://www.perfectlygreen.co.uk/ BenG

    An interesting post, there is a lot of discussion as to how beneficial synthetic grass can be. There will always be pros and cons to it as it is a still not widely used. There are many benefits to synthetic grass and it is really interesting looking into the details of it.

  • AshamedAlum

    This is an egregious mistake. Stop destroying the environment for the sake of a few elite athletes!