I saw today that one of Edmonton’s city councillors wants to look at replacing some of the city’s sports fields with artificial turf. The part of me that enjoys being in nature and wants all people to have more opportunities to connect with nature is struggling. I feel like there are many different factors in this discussion.
First, between lawns, sports fields, and school yards we have way more grass than would naturally be in Edmonton which is located at the transition between Aspen parkland (trees) and boreal forest (more trees). Grass is pretty costly in terms of water and fertilizer requirements; making anything grow where it doesn’t normally live takes extra resources. In addition, if the grass is growing it needs to be mowed, particularly when it is being used for sports. I guarantee that they aren’t using a push mower to mow the field.
Most research on this topic indicates that the artificial turf requires fewer resources (Cheng, Hu, Reinhard, 2014).
The next question then relates to the turf. Turf is typically made of petroleum products, in many cases recycled tires. As a result, it releases various chemicals into the air above and the soil/water below. Are these chemicals posing a health risk?
Generally, the research indicates that the turf does not result in higher than normal levels in either the air or leached into the soil/water (Cheng, Hu, Reinhard, 2014).
What about injuries to the players, is artificial turf better, the same, or worse?
Several studies have found similar injury risk between the two surfaces (e.g., Steffen, Anderson, & Bahr, 2007; Ekstrand, Timpka, & Hägglund; Soligard, Anderson, & Bahr, 2010). Based on the data researchers generally conclude that there is no difference in terms of player safety.
Another question I had was about permeability, or the ability for water to flow through the surface. With so much cement already affecting how rain water and snow flow and are absorbed we can’t afford to have water sitting on top of our sports fields until it evaporates instead of getting into the ground. All of the turf manufacturers I looked up indicate that their turf is permeable so it appears to be okay.
But this is when I got to a question that has less clear cut data: is playing on a sports field of any type outside actually fostering a relationship with natural environments? Well, either I haven’t found the right search terms or there isn’t really any research on this idea. So, I will speak anecdotally. I used to run a bunch of different outdoor activities for kids and what I found was that parents and teachers tended to like fields and field games, whereas the kids jumped at every chance to play games in the forest. I understand both sides: it is a heck of a lot was to keep track of people in a wide open field, but it is a lot more exciting to play most games in and among the trees. So I think we lose something by focusing so many of our outdoor recreation spaces on fields, perhaps we need a predator-prey league (awesome game if you haven’t played it), or community camouflage games (another awesome game), or perhaps a tree hawk association (yep, it’s another game involving trees). And then, as much as I don’t really like it when kids sit and pull up handfuls of grass, I’m afraid that moving to artificial turf may mean that we lose the fascination of pulling up a single blade of grass to see how you can squeeze the liquid out of it, or put it between your thumbs and blow to make a strange whistling sound.
Based on the data, I’m thinking that my concern about artificial turf is not the turf itself but the time we spend outside without actually interacting with nature.
Jan Ekstrand, Toomas Timpka and Martin Hägglund, Risk of injury in elite football played on artificial turf versus natural grass: a prospective two-cohort study, 2006, British journal of sports medicine, (40), 12, 975-80. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2006.027623