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Why Artificial Turf Does Not Make Sense in Somerville

Somerville needs more green space. We have the least amount of open space of any city in New England. We do not even measure what percentage of that open space is green, natural space, but considering what we count as open space and how little of that is covered in plant life, and from looking at aerial maps and seeing mostly pavement, it’s not hard to conclude that we have desperately little green space.

Problem 1: We need to define green space and open space independently so we can have separate requirements for each. Civilizations define what is important to them; Somerville has yet to delineate green space separately from open space. Both green and open space are important parts of a healthy community, but they fill different needs. Based on an extensive body of peer-reviewed studies, city dwellers need proximity to “natural” or “green” settings to maintain their mental and physical well-being; students learn better when they have access to natural outdoor space; air quality and environmental health is improved. Designating paved alleyways, artificial turf fields, grass fields, foam-rubber covered playgrounds, paved plazas, grassy parks, and thickly wooded areas all in the same category is confusing and harmful.

Problem 2:  The National Recreation and Park Association recommends a minimum of 6.25 acres of open space per 1,000 people in an urban area; Somerville has 2.1 acres per 1,000 people, which includes paved school yards and cemeteries. We have one third of the minimum recommendation for an urban area, and little to no extra space which to transition into additional open or green space. Somerville is overhauling its zoning code; as the most densely packed community in New England, we need to go above and beyond common practices on open space requirements, yet, if Union Square’s Zoning Plan is any indication, we will have less than half of the amount we need to meet Somervision’s goal for Union Square (34% open space) and will include sidewalks as part of the 15% open space. We will regret this decision for generations.

Problem 3: Despite the acknowledgment by City officials that Somerville does not have enough green space, and despite Somervision’s goal to increase our open space by 125 acres, the current version of the Fields Master Plan adds six new artificial turf playing fields in Somerville. Four are planned to go onto currently grass fields (Conway Park, Draw 7, and Dilboy Auxiliary A and B) and two to go onto currently paved schoolyards (Healey and Winter Hill). This does not include the artificial turf field in the designs for the rebuilt High School. These six are in addition to the three artificial turf fields we already have at Dilboy, East Somerville Community School, and Capuano.

If this decision was just about usage then artificial turf would make sense, but it’s not. There are environmental and financial concerns to factor in, as well. The field plan only mentions usage data though, and this skews the conversation. We need to have all information so we can seriously weigh the options. How much will these six (or more) fields cost to install, maintain, and replace when they wear out? How does that compare to grass? What is the environmental implication of laying plastic on our fields? What does it do to water run-off, air quality, and ambient temperature? How does it affect human health? How does it impact habitats for birds, bees, and other pollinators? Where does the old artificial turf go when we replace it? What chemicals are used to clean the plastic? What chemicals are used in conventional grass maintenance? How does organic grass maintenance compare to conventional in terms of cost, durability, and environmental and human health? These should not just be the questions of a few concerned residents; these are vitally important to everyone and we must demand answers to these questions from our City officials.

Problem 4: Artificial turf is not green space, despite its color. It is plastic carpet made to resemble grass blades. To soften the surface for safer play, an infill is put in between the blades. Crumb rubber, which is crumbled tires, is the most common infill because it is cheap. According to FieldTurf, a leading artificial turf company, approximately 20,000 tires go into one field. It was even touted as an environmentally-friendly option because it keeps tires out of landfills! If these tires were on your car and you wanted to get rid of them, they would be treated as hazardous waste. The EPA is now studying whether crumb rubber is too dangerous to human health to use as infill. There are other infills, with varying costs, health concerns, and replacement times, but no matter the material, this is not a natural space once artificial turf has been laid down. Therefore, putting environmental and health concerns aside for a moment, it doesn’t make sense for the City with the least amount of open space in New England, and by extension incredibly little of that green, to cover four of our grass fields with plastic. And, think of the lost opportunity to add real green space at the Healey and Winter Hill schoolyards and at the High School.

Problem 5: We are blaming the poor quality of our fields on the fact that they are grass, rather than focusing on the real reason they are a mess: lack of proper maintenance. Any grass expert you talk to agrees that there is a basic level of care to keep a grass field alive, including watering, aeration, and reseeding. Our fields do not have the luxury of any of this on a regular basis. Yet, when the grass wears away and holes are worn into the field, instead of looking to improve the care the fields receive, we are told instead that the only answer is artificial turf. We are missing a critical step: before saying grass won’t work, let’s actually try it in a serious way. Professional grass experts from far and near believe that the usage we are asking of our fields is doable on grass with the proper maintenance. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to try this healthier, less expensive option that untold professional athletes have publicly expressed a preference for? There is a company in Marblehead, MA that maintains Marblehead city grass fields with similar usage requirements to Somerville by implementing organic maintenance. They feel strongly that organically-maintained grass is actually more durable than conventionally-maintained, is less expensive, and is significantly healthier for humans and the environment. Why jump directly to the most expensive and most harmful option? This does not make fiscal or environmental sense.

Problem 6: We are thinking only in the short term. We are trying to maximize organized sports’ playing time for now, at the expense of environmental health and the diversity of use on our fields for the long term. If we keep taking away green space at the rate we are planning to, our grandchildren won’t know what a grass field looks like. Organized youth sports, including high school athletics, get priority use of the fields. The more plastic fields, the more they can be scheduled for organized sports, the less time remains for community use. The general public, who also has a right to these fields, would have more use for grass. No one wants to sunbathe or picnic or play catch on 150F degree plastic carpet (actually, food and drinks other than water are banned on artificial turf anyway so forget the picnics). So, even if it’s available, it’s less likely to be used for non-organized sports uses if it is artificial turf. Because we live in an urban area where backyards are small, if they exist at all, and many that do exist are paved over, our public parks and fields need to do double duty: in addition to providing organized athletic space, they must also serve as surrogate backyards, places where people can congregate, relax, and recreate. There are too many restrictions on artificial turf fields to make them functional as anything other than organized athletic space.

Problem 7: We like things bright and shiny. Foam rubber playgrounds and community path borders and artificial turf playing fields may look like fun Dr. Seuss landscapes, but they are adding petroleum-based materials onto our fragile environment and they are not necessary. Colorful? Yes. The only option? No. Just because this is the trend in playgrounds and playing fields does not mean it’s right. Since when does Somerville follow just because it’s popular?

For a city that prides itself on taking the lead in so many areas - the plastic bag ban, incentivizing solar electricity and rainwater collection, being a sanctuary city, proudly displaying the Black Lives Matter banner, encouraging exercise through Shape Up Somerville, strongly supporting our local businesses, striving to be carbon neutral by 2050 - we are failing our natural environment, and by extension, failing ourselves. Plastic carpet on our playing fields will increase use, but it also increases our carbon footprint and the heat island effect, decreases habitat and places for our residents to experience nature in our highly-impermeable and paved city, and is a permanent step in the wrong direction for a City that strives to be a great place to live, work, play, and raise a family.

The planet is resilient and we are used to it recovering, bouncing back, surviving the clear-cutting, poisoning, burning, and otherwise destructive activities human beings have blindly thrown at it. But Earth’s reserves are drying up. We see this in more severe storms, hotter weather, extreme droughts in some places and unprecedented flooding in others. On a local level, we deal with a decrepit sewer system that cannot handle the excess water from a rainstorm. We need more permeable surfaces that can absorb the stormwater into the ground, not fewer. We need to increase cool surfaces, not remove them. Our current debate over grass vs. artificial turf and natural playground vs. foam rubber or even native trees vs. non-natives may seem like just a drop in the bucket: how can one field or one tree really make a difference in the grand scheme of things when there is so much wrong with the world? But can you imagine if everyone felt and acted this way? We are holding onto a fragile thread, to keep our planet livable for generations to come. We must do everything in our power to improve the health of our environment. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and grandchildren, to the other animals and plants we share space with, and to the rock we call home, hurtling through space, that has sustained life for millennia. We don’t want to be the ones who made the final, critical error.

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