Skip to main content

Canadian author Margaret Atwood in Toronto, March 6, 2012.MARK BLINCH/Reuters

Margaret Atwood is rallying her legions of social-media followers against the University of Toronto's plan to turf one of its largest green spaces in favour of artificial playing fields.

The esteemed novelist and U of T alumna has become more vocal of late, hinting through Twitter that the plan could jeopardize her future donations to the university and playfully conjuring images of "the ghosts of angry donors" and "Keep Off signs" on the new fields.

Her advocacy has given renewed momentum to a noisy debate started last month by professors, students and alumni over the plans to use Pan/Parapan American Games funding to help build a pair of artificial field-hockey surfaces on the school's storied "back campus" field, which sits at the heart of an historic corner of campus. But university officials are standing fast, insisting the project will go ahead and promising a wide range of students will benefit.

The plan's detractors have attracted nearly 4,000 signatures to a petition voicing have voiced a range of concerns, fearing access to the field will be restricted, that artificial turf raises environmental and health concerns, and that the synthetic surfaces will be an affront to the heritage sites around them. University officials say they are sympathetic to the aesthetic downside, but say replacing the chronically muddy, churned-up grass will triple the time when the field is available to students, and that health warnings being circulated are "scaremongering."

"So, @UofTNews: as a soon-to-be dead alum w. $ to leave, am I annoyed by the anti-green plan? Y!," read one of Ms. Atwood's more provocative tweets, copying @BackCampusGreen, the group that has co-ordinated opposition.

"That is Ms. Atwood's prerogative," said Scott Mabury, U of T's vice-president, university operations, adding that he hasn't heard such warnings from other alumni. "We all like natural grass better, but the needs of our students lead us to taking advantage of great opportunities like this to make sure the university's dollar goes as far as possible."

The opportunity in question was to have organizers of the 2015 Pan Am Games pay 56 cents on every dollar of the $9.5-million plan, which will include two international-grade artificial field-hockey surfaces to use during the Games, bordered by a swath of real grass.

Ms. Atwood was not available to comment, but with construction set to start July 1, the BackCampusGreen opposition insists it won't give up trying to halt the development. "I think the pressure to reverse the decision is coming from all sides: it's young and old, it's humanists and engineers and doctors, it's alumni and friends of the university, students, faculty, people on the left ... and people on the right," said Suzanne Akbari, a BackCampusGreen organizer and professor of English and medieval studies.