Which Grass Is Greener?

A bond issue was defeated in my community. That’s unusual. A major reason for the defeat was the inclusion of a proposal to put artificial turf on the district’s three playing fields.

Forty years ago, a group of us were looking for a product that could be used to make the rooftops of urban schools into playgrounds. We were shown a rubber-like material with green “fingers” about the length and width of un-mown grass that could be produced in any length and laid down on a flat roof, creating a student-friendly surface where a ball could be bounced and a child could run and fall without scraping him or herself. To the best of my knowledge, the product never made it to the roofs of urban elementary schools. Instead, it was rolled out in much larger sizes onto playing fields where it became the first artificial turf. It was called Astroturf.

I do not know how many Astroturf or similar playing fields are still in existence, but the original enthusiasm has declined, in part because of the hardness of the playing surface. But the problem that Astroturf seemed to solve — the overuse and deterioration of grass playing fields — is a continuing and growing problem for many of our nation’s high schools and colleges.

There was a time when a high school could get by with two fields for all sports. Football was played on one and then it rested until the next season. Baseball was played on the other. For all intents and purposes, that was “all sports.”

Today, playing fields are needed spring and fall for field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, football, softball, baseball, and a number of other sports and activities for boys and girls. They are used by varsity teams, junior varsities, recreational teams, physical education classes, and before and after school for youth and adult leagues. There is no time for the grass to rest and recover.

As a result, many school districts, including the one in my community, are looking at newer artificial turfs for their fields. The products are porous, so fields drain and dry more quickly. They are easier to maintain than natural grass. They can be used over and over again. They are softer than the old installations because they are usually laid over a base of rubberized pellets. Most pellets are made from used tires, an environmentally friendly reuse of a natural resource.

So why isn’t every school district rushing out to install these turf fields? And why is there public opposition? There are at least three major obstacles that have been raised. Some, at least, need to be answered quickly, once and for all.

Are they safe? The rubber pellets under the surface are problem number one. Some, apparently, contain lead, enough lead, in the opinion of health professionals, to be harmful to young children. Last year, according to a report in the New York Times, several schools in New York and New Jersey closed their artificial fields because of high lead levels. On the other hand, many others have reported no problems at all. This is certainly an area that needs to be investigated and a problem that can be solved either by writing specifications for safe pellets or by the use of some other product.

The second difficulty is cost. The initial cost of an artificial field is high. But this is an area where life-cycle costing needs to be estimated. How long will an artificial field last, and what has to be spent to keep it in top condition? During that same time, what would be the cost of maintaining a grass field, even assuming it could be used as often as an artificial field? The math needs to be done.

The third problem is the belief that nature gave us beautiful green grass fields and it is environmentally unfriendly to replace them with artificial turf. Factually, those beautiful green fields are, themselves, artificial. They were created through the use of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, aeration, and gallons and gallons of water. As one advocate of artificial fields noted, “a field made from recycled materials could be more environmentally friendly than grass. The so-called natural field leaves a large carbon footprint.”

I’ve changed my own mind on this issue several times — personally, I love the smell of new-mown grass, but grass playing fields won’t support the athletic and recreational needs of our schools. Safe artificial fields may. The need is to guarantee that what is put down is totally safe and non-toxic for the smallest child.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."