Green Fields

Most communities today want to do whatever they can to be “green,” and schools are no exception. While many schools practice energy conservation and have adopted environmentally friendly cleaning and recycling programs, one often overlooked component of a green campus is their athletic fields. With proper design and thoughtful maintenance, any school’s athletic fields can be both green spaces for play and green spaces that help ensure a more sustainable campus community.

The first step in creating that plan is to examine how the site will be used. How many sports will be played on the field? How often? Which sports? Answers to these kinds of questions can help direct not only what type of field is most suitable for the school’s athletic program, but which environmentally-friendly measures will contribute to a long-term vision for a sustainable campus.

Faking It
Synthetic turf fields are an ideal solution for schools looking to be greener since they require much less maintenance, irrigation, and pesticide treatments than natural turf fields. Synthetic fields can also withstand much greater use over a wider range of weather conditions than their natural counterparts. That availability, in turn, means a school needs less space and fewer fields to meet the demands of its athletic program. What’s more, synthetic field manufacturers can use recycled materials. In fact, just one synthetic turf field can prevent the premature landfilling of up to 40,000 recycled tires.

The town of Lexington, MA, for instance, settled on installing synthetic fields when they were faced with the loss of many of their natural turf fields to school expansion. Recognizing that their population was growing, more adults were playing sports, and newer sports like lacrosse and field hockey were becoming more popular in their community, the town opted to renovate existing overused community fields that had been installed decades earlier on a former landfill. Three new synthetic fields were designed on the same footprint as the existing fields, meaning the same amount of space could now serve more sports, more often, and with less maintenance and far safer playing conditions. In addition, the design plan avoided adding unsightly detention basins by using the fields’ underdrainage systems to store excess stormwater. The plan also avoided penetrating the landfill cap, which would have incurred the huge expense of relocating landfill material, and saved 150,000 recycled tires from prematurely heading to a landfill.

Going Natural
From an environmental perspective, the synthetic solution was close to ideal — it reused existing topsoil for spectator mounds and parking berms, it avoided the need to find land for new fields, and it put recycled tires to use. But for some school districts, adding synthetic turf fields is simply cost prohibitive, at least in the short term. Natural grass fields cost much less to install and can also reuse native soils and on-site materials. But natural fields do come with a laundry list of design and maintenance needs that will affect their long-term cost, durability, and usability.

The layout of a natural grass field, for instance, must consider how the field is used, its orientation with sunlight and shade, the slope of the land, and many other factors. Even the composition of the soil itself affects how well the field will hold up. For schools with especially demanding field needs, for instance, a field with a sand-based root zone may be a more practical option than native soil since the sand drains better and is available for play much sooner. The sand base is also less susceptible to compaction and sustains less damage when it rains, resulting in lower maintenance and increased utility.

For schools that can’t afford that option, existing soil can be improved with amendments and reused instead of trucked off site, which also helps allay constructions costs. In 2003, for example, the Red Sox Foundation teamed with Hill House, The Esplanade Association, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation to fund the renovation of some fields located in Lederman Park, along the Esplanade in Boston. These new fields were to be named in memory of Teddy Ebersol, an avid young Red Sox fan.

Years of overuse and neglect, coupled with poor soils, severe settlement, and inadequate surface grades, had led to poor drainage, muddy playing conditions, and bare spots throughout the turf. Rather than hauling out hundreds of trucks full of poor soils and hauling in hundreds of trucks full of new soil, the team created a “green-thinking” strategy to reuse the existing soil. The team chose to augment the soil with sand and compost to improve its quality, designed better surface drainage patterns, and added a state-of-the-art athletic field irrigation system to save water — all highly sustainable options that not only saved money but also created safer, better performing, and more attractive playing fields

Keeping It Real — The Maintenance Plan
In addition to its initial design, an equally if not more important factor in determining how sustainable an athletic field will be is its future maintenance plan. Before settling on field type and design, the project team should first consider the resources they have to address the sustainable maintenance plan components of a natural field:

Fertilization — The most sustainable and environmentally-friendly fertilization programs are those that rely heavily upon organic fertilizers such as composting waste. Using composting waste improves the soil structure, holds excess water so irrigation needs are reduced, and increases the nutrient availability of the soil, which, in turn, reduces the need for chemical fertilization. When an organic alternative is not feasible, consider more frequent but smaller applications of a slow-release fertilizer to minimize the chance for nutrient runoff and provide a more consistent food source for the turf.

Irrigation — For a synthetic field, irrigation isn’t much of an issue and may be unnecessary, although access to water for cooling and cleaning should be considered during the planning stages. But for natural grass fields like the Teddy Ebersol fields, low-flow, low-pressure irrigation systems help to prevent excess water from simply running off site or being lost to evaporation. Athletic fields in a campus setting or near other buildings may also be irrigated using recycled or harvested water, provided the water is filtered, cleaned, and stored appropriately. Schools interested in using recycled water should consult an irrigation specialist to help determine the costs and feasibility of setting up such a system.

Overseeding — The best defense against pests is a healthy stand of turf. Frequent overseeding helps prevent bare spots from taking shape, which discourages the growth of weeds and minimizes the need for herbicides and other pesticides. It also minimizes stormwater impacts by reducing runoff and erosion. In addition to all of these ecological benefits, the surface will also play more consistently and be safer for the players.

Mowing and aeration — Setting up a regular schedule for frequent mowing and aeration helps foster steady and healthy turf growth, again, minimizing the need for pest control programs. Studies show that the more frequently a field is mowed, the healthier and more dense the stand of turf. Frequent aeration helps to alleviate compaction and open up the soil profile, promoting better internal drainage and the vitally important introduction of air into the root zone.

Shedding Some Light (and Energy Use)
Technology has advanced so quickly in the last several years that schools now have several options for energy-efficient field lighting that can help reduce the field’s environmental impact. Understanding how to configure the lighting system so that light is directed onto the playing surface and not into the sky or surroundings is perhaps the most significant step. Higher poles better focus the light, directing it downward onto the field instead of across and onto neighboring properties.

New high-efficiency lighting fixtures can help as well. These fixtures not only use less energy, but also have internal reflectors and shields that project the light downward and prevent it from bouncing into the sky. This kind of technology, properly applied, can reduce the field’s energy use up to 40 percent less than technology from even five years ago.

Going Green
These kinds of environmentally sensitive practices aren’t only reserved for expensive private schools and huge colleges — they’re feasible for K–12 schools as well. In fact, adding more sustainable components, and especially synthetic turf, to athletic fields can help schools’ athletic programs become more cost-effective, since they’ll need fewer fields, can use their fields more often, can reduce maintenance costs, and can, potentially, rent their fields to other groups.

The costs of resources like energy, land, and water are only going to continue increasing. As schools and communities look for ways to keep their budgets viable, incorporating sustainable design and maintenance techniques into their playing fields will save money, help protect the environment, and provide more attractive and safe spaces for their residents and children to play.

Patrick Maguire is a principal and David Nardone is a senior associate with landscape design firm Stantec in Boston, MA. Stantec has designed hundreds of athletic field complexes for schools and communities across the United States and Canada. Contact Stantec at 617/523-8103 or [email protected]