Natural Grass or Artificial Turf?

By Laurie Casey

Many towns across the country are converting their natural grass fields to artificial turf. Following this trend, Oak Park has four artificial turf fields. Two new artificial fields are being added to the middle schools this summer and an additional proposed artificial surface is up for consideration at Barrie Park. That could be seven fields total by the end of 2016. This doesn't include the many new artificial playground areas that have been added to Scoville Park and the elementary schools.

But is this the wisest choice? The Park District is holding a meeting this Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Barrie Center to get community input about the Barrie Park renovation. Please consider attending.

At an estimated cost of $800,000 per field, these artificial surfaces do not come cheap. Some of the costs are offset, Oak Park Park District commissioners say, because we avoid expensive annual re-sodding costs at these parks. Plus, when these artificial surfaces reach the end of their life spans in approximately eight years, just the top layers will be replaced, so it won't be as expensive to re-install them.

Aside from the expensive upfront costs, there are other potential health and environmental costs.

For example, we lose environmental benefits when we pave over large swaths of the landscape. Community activist Peggy McGrath points out that these park projects are, "removing trees to enlarge playing fields; sending rain water, via sewers, to the Chicago Reclamation Department, instead of water being absorbed on site; increasing carbon emissions due to removal of soil, grass and plantings; reducing natural habitat for birds, bees and other insects; and adding more petroleum products to the environment with plastic grass, ground up tires, or ground up gym shoes."

A few years ago, scientists discovered that certain parasitic wasps prey on the emerald ash borer, the insects that have killed hundreds of ash trees in Oak Park. The preferred habitat for these wasps happens to be bald soil in park playing fields, just like the soil we are paving and covering.

And then, there are potential health issues. There are actual health benefits when children are exposed to soil. When children play "in the mud," substances in the soil help their hearts, skin and immune systems. See a report by the National Wildlife Federation: The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids.

On the other hand, the rubber used at some of our artificial turf fields came from ground up used tires. These fields may contain heavy metals like lead and other toxins, and haven't been studied enough to show that they are safe. A recent USA Today article explains the current state of research about artificial rubber turf.

We live in a world where toxins are coming at us from many different sources. While it's impossible to eliminate all of them, we owe it to our kids to advocate for a cleaner, healthier, less polluted environment. Even minute exposure to pollutants, when combined with exposure to pollutants from other sources, can build up and add up to toxic levels. It's difficult to tease out the exact threat of recycled rubber turf to our children's health, because the science needs to catch up. But one of the points made in the USA Today article is absolutely correct: we shouldn't let our children be the test cases.

The Park District has opted to use a different artificial turf surface, Nike Grind, to create two new middle school fields this year. A Nike Grind turf field is also in two of the four proposed plans for the upcoming Barrie Park renovation. This surface is created by grinding up used gym shoes. Learn more here. It's terrific that gym shoes are finding a second life. On the other hand, these surfaces can't replicate the environmental benefits of a natural grass field.

According to the Park District's website, "Oak Park has consistently scored lower in the amount of available field space as compared to our benchmark communities. Limited land resources can result in overused athletic fields and a consistently high demand for field space."

In other words, if children are running on natural grass fields for 12 hours a day, the fields become a muddy mess. A 2013 field utilization study commissioned by the Park District recommended the addition of "at least three new artificial fields" to supply the demand.

But we would argue that there are other key "benchmarks" in addition to the quantity of space: the quality of those parks is important too. We should take into account all measures, including our children's health and the health of our Village's natural environment.