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Steering the Ocean Liner

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

On Thursday, the last chance to stop Conway Park from being covered in plastic was denied when the City Council voted 8 for (McLaughlin, Ewen-Campen, Clingan, Niedergang, Davis, Rossetti, White, Strezo), 2 against (Scott, Ballantyne), 1 abstained (Mbah) to approve funds for an artificial turf field there. (For excellent analysis of this project, read Chris Dwan’s piece in Medium). It wasn’t really a surprise, especially considering the history of artificial turf in Somerville.

Green & Open Somerville formed seven years ago out of conversations among community members who were concerned that the City was not paying attention to our natural spaces. We had so few to begin with, did not maintain them well, and did not hold developers accountable to help us get more. We had three plastic fields in 2013, all old and spreading their crumb rubber and plastic blade pieces into nearby gardens, down storm drains, and off of the fields in users’ shoes, clothes, and equipment. We were worried that more fields were going to be pushed for, and we were right. Now in 2020, despite fighting as hard as we could to stop this attack on the environment, we have eight plastic fields either in place, under construction, or approved for installation.


The arguments for and against artificial turf are recited so often by advocates on both sides that most people probably can repeat them by heart. Turf is brutally hot, expensive, made from fossil fuels, proven to contain heavy metals and PFAS, and its contents migrate into surrounding soils and waters, not to mention it pushes aside the unorganized recreational uses that grass fields provide. This surface is also the one that maximizes playing time. Inevitably, it ends up being “pro-grass” or “pro-kid” with “equity” the final nail in the coffin against keeping these fields natural grass.


There is a common fallacy among too many science-embracing, educated, card-carrying progressives that we still have time to save ourselves and our environment from the impending disaster that is climate change. I’m not sure where that confidence comes from. The media not understanding the dire straits we’re in and therefore not reporting it enough? Propaganda from huge corporations whose very existence requires us to believe they can be part of the solution? Our own ill-founded hope that we can wish the problem away?


Regardless that so many of us who should be walking around with a knot in our stomachs and not sleeping at night are instead continuing to compromise environmental health, the truth remains: of all of the unbelievably serious issues we as a community, as a country, and as a species face right now - hunger, homelessness, racism, bigotry, fear, inequality in education, health care, and the judicial system, police brutality, and pandemics to name a few, none of these issues will matter if we do not have a livable planet. Not one. I am not minimizing the absolute necessity to address these problems. We must do so. But we must do so in conjunction with environmental health. It’s not enough to say we need to address these other issues first, because it’s too late for that. Too often, well-meaning environmentalist-identifying people will try to mollify themselves and others by doing something really bad for the environment but then doing something better elsewhere, like putting an artificial turf field in one spot, but talking up an as-yet-to-be-constructed pocket park elsewhere. The only offset this creates is in our own conscience.


These same folks argue that one turf field won’t make a difference to the heat island effect or removing one tree won’t push air pollution over the top. Yes, if every action we took was of maximum environmental value, then sure, one field wouldn’t really matter. Unfortunately, this narrow-focused thinking has gotten us into the situation we now face. Everything we do is connected yet we look at one field, one tree, one development at a time. We have built on, paved over, cut down, and encroached upon the nature that is the basis of our existence. This nature provides the food we eat, the air we breathe, the soil we plant in, the water we drink. It is resilient to a point, but we’ve pushed way past that point.


The truth is, grass fields will not solve the climate crisis. Not even close. (Planting all of our fields and other open spaces with dense forests of native trees and plants would make a difference.) But at the very least, grass is not a step backwards; but artificial turf is. The only argument for artificial turf is its playability, yet when we will have over forty days a year of 90 degree temps by 2030, even this benefit becomes moot because the fields will be so hot that they will need to be closed on many days for users’ safety, all the while oozing hot air into the surrounding neighborhood.


The fights over artificial turf on Conway Park and other fields in town need to stop. The arms race for state-of-the-art facilities siphons off the wealth of middle-class communities when parents hope that their child will be the one who beats the odds and receives an athletic scholarship to a desirable college; imagine how many trees could be planted with the money instead. Children do need playing time, of course. But they also need a planet that can sustain life. So we must find other ways to get them that exercise and fresh air. Why are organized field sports the most important, above all other uses of our common public spaces? Over the years, my kids have played soccer, baseball, softball, and football on Somerville teams. These are terrific sports, but they are not the only team sports.


We are the second most densely populated city of 75,000 or more in the US. Yet we insist on suburban sports. Why are we not actively promoting basketball, rowing, running, swimming, and tennis? What if soccer only had a fall season? Our field demands would be solved, our grass would have time to recover, and we could stop this fight and focus on more important issues like passing a native plant ordinance, planting thousands more trees, depaving yards and parking lots, and putting a green roof on every building.


WE DO NOT HAVE ANY MORE TIME TO WASTE. If this sounds alarmist to you, you do not understand the situation we find ourselves in on planet Earth. Many really smart people who have dedicated their careers to the environment are telling us this, every day, but we are not listening. It doesn’t help that our national leadership is failing us on this and so many other issues. But as when Somerville stepped up with an aggressive Covid-19 response when the federal and state governments sat back, we need to take this issue on, too, even if others are not yet. Someone has to be first.

It’s a long shot that it will work. I’ve heard it likened to steering an ocean liner. If you are going to make a turn as you pilot one of these giants, you need to anticipate it miles ahead. In all likelihood, we are too late. Living conditions will worsen, affecting the poorest people worst and first, and eventually Earth will be too hot, too crowded, and too barren of food or water to sustain us. Like the ocean liner, even if we were to magically stop all carbon emissions and pollution today, we would see increasingly worse effects for years to come. But you have to start sometime and in this case, immediately.


It’s too late for our largest public spaces (honestly, do we have any more fields to cover in plastic?). But we can still make other changes, and I desperately hope that we do. We need strong, brave leaders who understand that it’s too late for “offsets” and “next times” and “just one mores”. We have to face the uncomfortable truths about what we’ve done to our planet and do the hard work to make repairs without delay.


The morning after the vote, a few green space advocates met in the rain at a busy intersection in town to see if we could eke out 25 sq. ft. for a rain garden. We're not giving up, and neither should you.


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