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Turf war over fate of U of T Back Campus

Plan to convert popular green space to Astroturf field hockey pitch met with strident opposition
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Lacrosse players on the UC backfield. Replacing the natural grass will mean some sports can no longer be played comfortably on the field. BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY
Lacrosse players on the UC backfield. Replacing the natural grass will mean some sports can no longer be played comfortably on the field. BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

A plan to replace the natural grass on the University of Toronto’s Back Campus with artificial turf has been met with a growing chorus of opposition from students, staff, faculty, and even former Pan Am organizers.

As part of preparations to host the 2015 Pan and Parapan American Games, the university announced plans to convert the backfield behind University College and Hart House to a field hockey pitch, composed of polypropylene or polyethylene synthetic turf. Members of the university community are speaking out against what they perceive to be an irresponsible course of action.

The University College Council voted overwhelmingly to register “strong concerns” about the $9.5 million project.

“We’re concerned on three different levels: sustainability, heritage, and student life,” said Suzanne Akbari, professor of English and Medieval Studies. “First, with regards to sustainability, a field hockey surface has to have a tremendous amount of water flushed through it. The drainage is going to go into storm drains, which already have a very high water table.”

“Particularly in the case of a heavy rainstorm, the runoff would overtax the aged storm structure in our water system, and it’s unclear exactly what chemicals, for instance, leach into the water when they run off the field,” adds professor Alan Ackerman.

Environmental considerations also extend to concerns about a possible “heat island” effect as a result of the development. Artificial turf surfaces heat up more intensely than other areas as temperatures rise, in contrast to surfaces of natural grass, which absorb heat and have a cooling effect on their surrounding environment.

“We found Varsity Stadium’s conversion from natural grass turned that northern area of campus into one of the hottest areas on campus,” explains John Danahy, co-director of the Faculty of Architecture’s Centre for Landscape Research. “This runs counter to all contemporary thinking about climate change adaptation in downtown urban conditions. As a professional landscape architect, I am unconvinced that the interests of the performance sports lobby should blindly outweigh all other stakeholders’ interests when the backfield is arguably one of the most core heritage landscapes on campus.”

“On a warming planet, it seems a synthetic surface is not the right way to go,” said Ackerman. “I really think the University of Toronto should be a leader in environmental issues and not a backslider.”

On February 20, the administration responded to the increasingly vocal criticism through a statement released by Scott Mabury, vice-president of university operations, and David Naylor, president of the university.

“There is, of course, a very reasonable basis for debate here,” the senior administrators conceded. “Some will argue for maintaining a natural grass playing field, both aesthetically and as a point of environmental principle.” The statement also asserts that “the actual environmental impact of this change borders on negligible.”

The release proceeded to address sustainability objections specifically: “Synthetic turf surfaces do heat up faster than natural grasses. However, overall heat radiation effects from this limited surface area are trivial in the context of the region, not least as compared to any number of projects involving paving of large surfaces in Toronto.”

Naylor and Mabury dismissed concerns about water management, suggesting that “storm water drainage layers are customarily built into newer-generation synthetic turf products; that is the case here.”

In advancing the case for the conversion of the backfield, the administration emphasized the increased accessibility the project entails for student athletes and the university community as a whole. “Over 10,000 students are engaged in intramural sports on the St. George campus alone, and that number is growing every year. The University’s physical activity spaces, however, are not expanding,” reads the statement.

The statement also sought to address concerns that the converted backfield could exclude members of the community who are not field-hockey players. “The fields will remain open for varied recreational uses,” Mabury and Naylor wrote. “More generally, every sport and recreation facility on U of T campuses is developed with our students in mind.”

Paul Henderson, a former member of the International Olympic Committee, and the individual who spearheaded Toronto’s 2015 Pan American Games bid, disagrees. “High-level field hockey pitches are unique; they cannot be used for any other sport,” he said. “At the end of the games, one of two things will happen. The field must be torn up to be used for intramural sports, or it will be used for field hockey and intramural sports cannot use the backfield. Everybody loses.”

Henderson offered an alternative which he argued could be acceptable to all parties concerned.

“On those fields, the university should have gotten two soccer venues. A high level soccer field can be grass, and it can be used for other sports, and the field hockey pitch should be at Downsview Airport,” he argued. At Downsview, he explained, the venue would be near a subway station, and all field hockey players from each of Toronto’s universities, as well as high school players, could conveniently access it for competition.

The administration has stated repeatedly, in the initial proposal for the project and in response to the controversy it has engendered, that the proposed venues would provide both hosting opportunities for high-level field hockey competition and increased activity space for varied recreational student use. The growing number of those opposing the artificial turf, however, remain unconvinced.

“It’s really shocking the way things have been misrepresented,” remarked Akbari. “I came to uc freshly out of grad school in 1995,” she said. “I enjoyed seeing the spontaneity of usage on the backfield, both by sports teams, rugby teams, and so on, but also people just playing casually and hanging around.” She went on to lament that “now people are not going to want to play Frisbee there, or soccer where you could fall down, or softball where you could wipe out sliding into a base. It’s going to become a sterile environment.”

University College, along with the campus green that surrounds it, is formally recognized as a National Historic Site by the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

Construction is set to begin this July.