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The back campus field at University College. (University of Toronto Dept. of Kinesiology and Physical Education)

The back campus field at University College.

(University of Toronto Dept. of Kinesiology and Physical Education)

Paul Aird

On the University of Toronto’s last patch of grass, a real turf war Add to ...

For the last two years, University of Toronto administrators have been quietly planning to replace the grassed surfaces with synthetic turf on the field behind University College, which is also called the back campus. In their dogged determination to replace the natural turf with fake turf to extend the playing season minimally and for use during the Pan Am Games 2015, the authorities have ignored the biological dimension that could lead to a wiser course of action.

I became alarmed that the back campus was to be covered with artificial turf when I read the articles by University professor emeritus Michael Bliss (Turfing an oasis of urban heritage), and by James Bradshaw (Margaret Atwood leads the charge against fake turf at U of T). I had seen nothing released by the university’s Governing Council.

As a former member of university’s Governing Council, I was amazed that when council voted and approved the project, it chose to do so in camera. In the past, it was highly irregular for a final vote to be taken behind closed doors.

The University of Toronto recently celebrated its 186th birthday (15 March 2013). It is a time to reflect on our heritage and what we will pass on to successors. It is a time to respect the back campus and to honour the University College council’s vote in 2012, when 31 objected to the field project and zero favoured it.

In early March 2013, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education presented a detailed description of the project on its website. The faculty claims, “The challenges of balancing the demand for field time with the need to maintain natural turf are well-documented. The reality is that maintaining natural grass in this highly-used space is simply not a sustainable solution.”

This claim by the faculty is a fraud. The reality is that maintaining natural grass in this highly used space is truly sustainable. It has been sustained since the university opened in 1827, it can continue to be sustained, and it can be improved to extend the playing season.

In contrast, the artificial turf will require the following: The removal of gum and bird droppings, applications of a herbicide to prevent the growth of moss in the fake turf where it meets the real turf, repeated applications of an algicide over the entire field to prevent the growth of algae, and frequent brushing, aerating, raking, sweeping and blowing to remove leaves and seeds falling from nearby trees. The field will become unusable during warm sunny days because of temperature buildup, unless irrigated to cool it down. Further, the fake turf has a limited life of eight to ten years, and is very expensive to remove and replace.

Everyone would agree that the back campus has wet spots and is rough in places. But that is because the budget for field maintenance has always been inadequate. With proper funding, any modern crop farmer or golf course superintendent could do a much better job.

The solution is to install a properly designed tile drainage system that will draw off excess moisture. The “hard clods” will be removed and the field reseeded with a mixture of hardy grass seed. A tile-drained field will certainly be used earlier in the spring and later in the fall.

I think Pan Am field hockey players would be pleased to play their heritage game in such a fine heritage setting. If for some reason the Pan Am authorities require synthetic turf, then their field hockey games could be scheduled in Varsity Stadium, or elsewhere.

There is a choice: the natural way – to sustain grass and robins on the back campus, or the unnatural way – to replace the grass and robins with synthetic grass, artificial colour and repeated spraying of biocides.

The right choice is obvious.

Paul Aird is professor emeritus of forest conservation policy at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Forestry.

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