Comment: Why fields shouldn’t be covered with artificial turf

Victoria council, after some hesitation, has voted to stick with artificial turf in a renovation of Finlayson Field at Topaz Park. Some councillors had wanted to switch to natural grass, but a flood of calls and letters from athletes and sports officials persuaded them to stay with artificial turf, largely because it allows for many more days of use.

Jo-Ann Canning, a master gardener with 25 years’ experience in teaching sustainable gardening practices, and a member of the Vancouver Island Master Gardeners Association, says councillors should have picked natural grass and in this article outlines the problems with artificial turf.

Here are some important facts about artificial turf: 1. The heat artificial turf produces in summer kills all soil organisms in the top 18 inches (the most vital part of the soil) so, on this very large area, the surrounding trees’ feeder roots that would normally be present cannot grow. Their health, as well as their ability to withstand wind, becomes severely compromised.

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2. Artificial turf creates severe compaction (just like a roadway). This is important because:

• Compaction stops water from entering the soil, increasing runoff to nearly the same rate as cement — up to 85 per cent.

• This high level of runoff carries both particulates and toxins directly into waterways, as well as wasting a dwindling resource.

• Earthworms get fried if they cannot dig down fast enough to escape the rising heat during daylight hours.

• Trees become less healthy over the long term, and will seek out less desirable areas to get their food, cracking walkways and invading sewage-pipe areas.

3. This is in contrast to natural turf:

• Grass roots keep the soil both friable and permeable.

• Healthy soil slows runoff, giving plants time to soak up much of the moisture.

• The microbes and worms in healthy soil denature over half of the toxic runoff (such as fertilizers and car oils).

• Healthy soil decreases the need for sprinkler use during dry months.

• In lower-lying areas in a turf environment, seasonal pools and bog gardens can be designed for water conservation, pollinator diversity and beauty (note: seasonal pools are an important element of Victoria’s cool-summer Mediterranean climate).

4. We have many cool-climate turf choices as well as turf alternatives (such as creeping fescues combined with micro-clover) that have proved to be low-maintenance, need little or no fertilizer once established, are meant to go dormant in summer, so need little or no irrigation, and are long-lived ground covers suitable for high-use activities.

The capital region is blessed with a unique — and delicately balanced — climate. The green programs the Capital Regional District has initiated are a standard to be proud of, and have already helped stabilize the infrastructure in urban parks, suburban, exurban and rural areas. I am aware of these facts because I researched and taught a segment at the Paine Horticultural Centre this autumn on Vancouver Island’s climate, and how climate change is affecting us.

I am sure the mayor and council have read the CRD, provincial and federal directives on coping with climate change, especially the overall directives of protect diversity, reduce vulnerability in all the short- and long-term planning and budgeting papers.

Artificial turf violates both these directives. It is counterintuitive and wasteful of taxpayer dollars.

Finally, the argument that our young athletes will become couch potatoes without artificial turf to allow them to stay fit during the rainy months is shortsighted.

In Canada’s harsher climates, indoor pools and indoor exercise tracks and venues have been combined with school physical eduction programs to keep our youth, as well as the rest of the population, fit.

And, as coaches already know, combination exercise (such as swimming and walking or jogging sessions) or classic “CrossFit,” is one of the single most beneficial fitness activities for youth.

In our changing climate, these millions of tax dollars are more reasonably spent in adding or expanding covered venues that will provide protection from our increasing heat during summer months (the literature shows Victoria is now experiencing a threefold increase in “sun days,” as is the case in other Mediterranean and semi-desert climates), as well as increasing precipitation during winter that make all turf grass (both natural and artificial) slippery, soggy and oft-times unusable.

I urge the mayor and council to spend money on the long game. Natural turf (a sustainable, renewable resource that helps the trees and helps clean the air) combined with covered or indoor venues will serve the capital region — and our fragile environment — best.

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