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Michael Bliss

Michael Bliss

Michael Bliss

Why turf an oasis of Toronto’s urban heritage? Add to ...

Canada’s largest university, set in the heart of downtown Toronto, is preparing to drastically shrink its campus green space to build new artificial-turf playing fields for elite athletes. Many faculty, students and alumni are not happy with what is now presented to them as a fait accompli. E-mails are flying and petitions circulating. An important part of the university’s and community’s heritage is being jeopardized by the steering effects of Pan American Games money.

The University of Toronto’s front and back campuses, the fields to the south and north of University College, have been oases of openness in the heart of the city. They are the places where people meet and mingle, jog, throw frisbees, hold demonstrations and play pickup softball and all manner of organized sports. Graduates celebrate on the front campus, student soldiers drilled on the back campus during the two world wars and the Toronto Argonauts sometimes trained there. And every spring, around exam time, these great commons have to be closed off for a few weeks while their grass is regenerated – as has been the case for more than a century.

For some exuberant athletes, it apparently isn’t enough to share these beautiful fields with the rest of the university and the community.

For many years, physical educators have lobbied to take over parts of the campuses and create durable playing fields with artificial turf. An offer from Games organizers to pay 56 per cent of the estimated $9.5-million cost of doing just this has finally swung the deal. Some months ago, the university’s governing council voted behind closed doors to go ahead with the asphalting and artificial turfing of the back campus. Work is to begin this summer to create two world-class field hockey pitches that will be used in 2015 for the Pan Am Games, then serve certain of the athletic needs of the university.

The new fields will be fenced off and access controlled. The university hopes to recover some of its costs by renting the facility to other users. Because the fields are to be built to international field hockey specifications, it is not clear that all other sports can be played on them. Certainly not rugby. And, almost certainly, activities such as pickup Frisbee, kite-flying, dog-walking or kissing your date as you stroll across a moonlit pitch will not be supported. Even gum-chewing should be banned, a maintenance manual recommends, also noting that the turf should not be used when frozen.

Some of the well-meaning opponents of the proposal, who tend to come from humanities disciplines, raise many red flags about environmental hazards. While it’s true that the nylon mat over asphalt over gravel will actually have to be watered and algae growth countered with herbicides (assuming these may legally be used in downtown Toronto), the more scientifically minded administrators pour scorn on this alarmism, their resolve seemingly hardened.

These same administrators, however, are remarkably casual in swallowing undocumented claims from physical educators about student demand for the elite fields, and about the allegedly terrible conditions of the natural grass. Judging by all the available documents, the university’s administration and governors have neglected to do any studies of the costs of an obvious alternative, which would be a major upgrading of the natural turf in the interests of continuing traditional usage patterns. They see little downside in turning more than 10,000 square metres of verdant campus – heritage of the whole university community and the people of Toronto and Ontario – over to the athletic department to pave, mat, fence, rent and administer.

Many years ago, I played football on the back campus, played hockey on rinks there in the winter, walked my girlfriend across it by moonlight. During the several decades I taught at the University of Toronto, its lovely green open spaces always inspired me. There were times when the university thought so too, when its planning documents were nearly boastful in offering its green campus as part of the Toronto heritage to be cherished and protected. No more.

The decision to put artificial turf on the back campus of the University of Toronto is like Harvard proposing it for parts of its Harvard Yard, or of Oxford proposing it for Christ Church Meadow. At these renowned universities, such an idea would be immediately dismissed as an unthinkable desecration of a heritage landscape. It would not be tolerated for a moment. It is about to happen at Ontario’s provincial university. The lure of easy money backed by the lobbying of a special interest group is proving irresistible.

Historian and author Michael Bliss holds the rank of University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto. He has signed a petition to save the back campus.

What does U of T's green space mean to you? Are you among those outraged, or is the space being put to good use? Tell us here.

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