Turf war

Public-private partnership converts SF fields to artificial turf despite lingering environmental concerns


The signs around Kimbell Playground in the Western Addition announce the field's closure for construction until April 2010. Although they detail the extensive renovations, there is no hint that controversy swirls around one particular aspect: replacing living grass with synthetic turf.

In 2004, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department issued an assessment of the city's recreation facilities that estimated the city needed 30 softball fields and 35 soccer fields to match demand from the city's players. Looking to get the most playing time from existing facilities, Rec and Park officials turned to turf.

Yet concerned citizens, community groups, and environmental organizations are trying to stop the conversion until the impacts of turf are better understood. Both sides say they are fighting for the welfare of San Francisco's children. City officials tout increased availability of fields and reduced maintenance costs, while activists cite a wide variety of health and environmental issues.

"No one is happy about taking natural grass away," Rec and Park project manager Dan Mauer told the Guardian, "but we're trying to meet multiple demands with limited resources."

In fact, the department's steadily dwindling budgets led it to privatize the transition. In 2005, Rec and Park began collaborating with the newly formed nonprofit City Fields Foundation, signing a formal memorandum of understanding in 2006. This public-private partnership determined that without the resources to buy real estate for new fields, putting artificial turf on existing fields was the best alternative.

The transition began in 2006 with Garfield Square and Silver Terrace Playground; the partnership deemed both a success, and pushed for more. In February 2008, voters passed Proposition A, a $185 million parks bond that included $8.5 million earmarked for "park playfields repair and reconstruction." The legal text makes no mention of synthetic turf, but the money was intended to match funds from City Fields for the installation of turf, lights, and other improvements to designated fields.

The project is estimated to cost $45 million, with $25 million coming from City Fields and $20 million from the city. Although cash-strapped Park and Rec department officials stress the financial benefits, environmental concerns prompted the department to create a Synthetic Playfields Task Force in March 2008 with 16 volunteer members.

The task force was charged with evaluating peer-reviewed data on a new generation of artificial turf that improved on the older variety, commonly referred to by the brand that popularized it, AstroTurf. The new turf was less likely to cause injury than its predecessor and could withstand higher levels of play than grass, which takes time to absorb rainfall and must rest and regrow after heavy use.

The Synthetic Fields Task Force identified 11 possible issues of public concern and made a number of emphatic recommendations on how to proceed, including avoiding products with lead and investigating alternatives to rubber infill. Despite this, it didn't call for a moratorium and conversions continued.

The city has converted four sites, soon to be five, and added lights at a sixth as part of the Playfields Initiative. According to City Fields Foundation spokesperson Patrick Hannan, "These fields have gone from being fields of last resort to some of the most requested fields in the city." According to organization's estimates, the addition of lights and turf has added more than 27,000 hours of playtime to the first five sites.

Perhaps no one is more enthusiastic about synthetic turf than the sons of the late Gap, Inc. founder Donald Fisher, a regular funder of conservative causes.

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