Back Campus Field Project

PDAD&C #39, 2012-13


To:  PDAD&C 
From:      Scott Mabury, Vice President, University Operations
David Naylor, President
Date:  February 20, 2013
Re:  Back Campus Field Project



Over the last few weeks, we have heard and read critical commentary about the plan to replace the grassy surfaces used for athletics on the back campus with synthetic turf. This commentary has accelerated with a public petition and a variety of false and even bizarre claims about the project.

There is, of course, a very reasonable basis for debate here. Some will argue for maintaining a natural grass playing field, both aesthetically and as a point of environmental principle in an urban context where, instinctively, we lament any reduction in green space. Others will argue that we must focus on the benefits that will be enjoyed by student-athletes and community members who can use these fields, if they are resurfaced with synthetic turf, for hundreds of additional hours each year. They may also respond that, taken in the context of the St. George campus and the City of Toronto as a whole, and setting aside the indisputable aesthetic arguments, the actual environmental impact of this change borders on negligible.

The ‘Administration' is sympathetic to the aesthetic reservations of members of our community. We also share the visceral preference for grass over synthetic turf. However, we do not find that the weight of evidence supports the post hoc arguments advanced by those opposed to the project. This is particularly germane since broad health and environmental impacts were considered in the development of the project, and the plans were duly approved by the Governing Council of the University some 10 months ago.

To elaborate on this last point: The matter was put in the hands of a project planning committee involving faculty, staff and students in January 2011. There was wide consultation in the ensuing months, both inside and outside the University. Dissenting voices were very few and far between. The project proposal entered governance in early 2012, and was approved by the Governing Council in April. Indeed, the varied estates of the University represented at the Governing Council have made their support for this project clear in a series of overwhelming votes.

We elaborate below.

Growing Demand for Recreational Athletic Space

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. As intramural waiting lists expand, and as demand for drop-in recreation swells, we are turning frustrated students away from opportunities to engage in regular physical activity because of lack of facility time and space to accommodate the huge demand.

This is the Catch-22 of a downtown location. Converting any grass field to synthetic turf raises hackles given the relative lack of green space in the Toronto core. But that location in turn means that the potential recreational use of our open spaces must be maximized. We also expect this demand to continue to grow annually with our future students' increasing awareness of the importance of physical activity and sports for physical health, including reducing the prevalence of a variety of chronic diseases. Students are also attuned to physical activity as a factor in mental health - a relevant consideration at a time when concerning levels of stress have been reported among students in their teens and twenties.

Natural Turf Maintenance

The back campus fields have been home to intramural and recreational sport for over 100 years, and the challenges of balancing the demand for field time with the need to maintain natural turf are well-documented. The turf in this space is badly degraded and the playing conditions have sparked complaints from students for many years about the combination of uneven footing and hard clods just beneath the grassy surface. Unfortunately, our best efforts to revive and maintain the turf have consistently resulted in a quality playing surface for a very limited time each year.

The comparative advantage of the synthetic turf is that intensive use will continue much later into the fall and early winter, and can resume much earlier in the spring. Students and student-athletes at all levels, along with other members of our community, will realize greater access to these fields throughout the year, and will enjoy a higher quality surface on which to play, train and compete.

The Pan Am Opportunity

The Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in 2015 presented an opportunity for the University of Toronto to create infrastructure legacies for the University and broader community. By installing a double synthetic turf field on the back campus for use during the Games, the University could meet a pressing need for a fraction of the usual cost.

Specifically, the University - through the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE) - will contribute 44 percent of the cost of the $9.5-million project; the remainder will be provided by government sponsors in return for the Games' exclusive use for a very time-limited period in the summer of 2015. The long-term payback is greatly expanded playing time across the entire spectrum of physical activity programs in high demand by our students - from recreational field use to competitive sports.

We note, further, that the fields will be used in the first instance for the Pan Am field hockey competition. Field hockey is a very popular sport in Europe, Asia and South America. Closer to home, the women's Blues teams have won 11 Canadian championships, and continue to draw outstanding student-athletes. Moreover, for Toronto, the world's most diverse region, changing demographics mean that field hockey has a very bright future among both sexes.

Our colleagues in KPE have asked us to emphasize that the fields will remain open for varied recreational uses. More generally, every sport and recreation facility on U of T campuses is developed with our students in mind. That many of these spaces also serve highly competitive athletes means that U of T students have access to state-of-the-art equipment, surfaces and spaces for keeping active and healthy - and that these resources are supported by the latest knowledge about exercise science, physical activity and healthy living.

The Consultation and Approval Process

As noted above, the University struck a project planning committee in January 2011 to review the feasibility of the back campus fields project. Multiple presentations about the proposal were made to, variously, the University's Design Review Committee, the Neighbourhood Liaison Committee, the Council on Athletics and Recreation, and the Council on Student Services. The project was presented to, and approved by: the Planning and Budget Committee of Academic Board (February 29, 2012); the Business Board (March 4, 2012); the Academic Board (March 14, 2012); and the Governing Council (April 11, 2012). With the exception of one abstention, the support was unanimous at all levels of University governance.

Concerns and Responses

Among the concerns that have been raised, the following bear notice and response.

1. The back campus will be ‘privatized'. It will no longer serve as open space with public access for pick-up soccer, flag football, softball and other recreational activities.

The ‘privatization' claim is odd sloganeering. The University obviously will continue to own these fields and the kinds of activities that can take place on the fields will not change. In fact, the main change will be increased hours of use for myriad activities. The only period of limitation will be during the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games (2 weeks in July 2015, 1 week in August 2015) in return for a contribution of 56 percent of the cost of the project.

2. The use of synthetic turf causes increased risks of injuries.

Students have repeatedly raised the opposite concern, namely, that the current uneven surface predisposes to injuries. These claims are anecdotal. As to synthetic turf, observational studies of varied designs have been undertaken to assess injury rates over the course of many years. In a nutshell, while early forms of synthetic turf were probably associated with higher rates of some types of injury (e.g. ligamentous tears in the knee joint), the bulk of evidence shows no difference between well-maintained and high quality natural surfaces on the one hand, and more recently developed synthetic turf products on the other.

3. This heralds a retreat from green space on the St. George campus and the front fields will be next to go.

The Administration is firmly opposed to synthetic turf on the front campus, and the plans for the back campus include maintenance of grass around the synthetic fields, plus additional plantings that will add natural foliage to the area. Over the years, the University has added scores of trees and shrubs to the St. George campus.

4. Synthetic turf will lead to outbreaks of staph aureus infection among student-athletes.

This is unfortunate scaremongering. Bacteria of diverse types can be found on synthetic turf-blades and in natural turf alike. The community prevalence of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) colonization appears to be rising, and MRSA have been isolated in various school and university athletic facilities. Many factors promote transmission, including skin breaks of all types, physical contact among players, and sharing equipment, towels and whirlpools. Absent multivariate and comparative analyses, it is unclear whether synthetic turf is an independent risk factor, and whether any such risk is incremental to that associated with the same activities on natural turf.

5. The plan raises various social, health, and environmental concerns.

The social and health benefits of increased physical activity are empirically validated and substantial.

The turf in question contains no crumb rubber infill, or fill of any kind, nor does it contain lead as a pigment stabilizer.

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.

Storm water drainage layers are customarily built into newer-generation synthetic turf products; that is the case here. There will also be a large storage cistern installed under the field to accommodate large volumes of storm water.

More generally, over the past 40 years, synthetic turf has been installed on thousands of fields worldwide. Numerous independent studies by credible agencies have confirmed the safety of synthetic turf as an outdoor sports surfacing material and found little or no basis for aggressive claims about environmental hazards. Many observers, including the signatories to this memorandum, will nonetheless take the position that a watching brief on the evidence is appropriate. Indeed, at the point when this surface wears out, we would not be surprised to find widespread use of hybrid technologies that combine the best of natural grasses and synthetic surfaces. For now, however, we believe the concerns that have been raised have a weak evidentiary foundation, and that the debate, as noted, turns primarily on aesthetics and an intuitive concern about the environmental impacts of synthetic fields.

Summary and Conclusions

The back campus field project will see two synthetic turf fields installed between University College and Hoskin Avenue. Public airing of the proposal and the related project was undertaken during 2011-12, and very strong support was registered by all estates at the relevant committees and boards of the University's Governing Council. Maintenance of natural foliage and turf around the synthetic surfaces is planned, and concerns now being raised about these surfaces were variously weighed and/or addressed in the planning process or have a weak foundation. The development of these new surfaces is part of a strategy to improve playing time and quality of play for all levels of sport and for the entire U of T community - above all, our students. The project will be proceeding as approved by Governing Council.