Turf war

Pub date October 13, 2009
WriterRachel Sadon


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. Bill, John, and Bob Fisher founded and partially funded City Fields Foundation "to give back to the city and provide children with access to the same fields and opportunities they had as children," Hannan said.

Opponents argue that synthetic fields are not the same ones the Fishers played on as children. In January 2008, Pinky Kushner of the Sierra Club sent a letter asking the Recreation and Park Department to suspend the program until "it can be demonstrated that these projects will have no negative impacts on the environment or on human health and enjoyment of public open space."

Her letter references the city’s Precautionary Principle, a policy whereby the city seeks to avoid taking action that might harm the environment even when there is a "lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect." SF’s Environment Deparment says the principle "does not advocate the avoidance of any and all potential environmental risks." Rather, it "advocates for a public process in which the benefits of an action or technology are weighed against potential risks."

Rec-Park and City Fields are confident the Synthetic Playfields Task Force inquiry meets the requirements. But Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has authored a resolution asking for a moratorium on turf conversion until the state completes a study on the issue. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation in September 2008 tasking state agencies to study the turf question and submit a report by September 2010.

Even if it passes, Mirkarimi’s resolution is nonbinding and unlikely to halt the current conversion of Kimbell Field. But it does have support from activists who believe synthetic turf poses a health risk. In several parks, community members lobbied against the proposed conversions and successfully convinced City Fields and Rec and Park not to move forward.

Franco Mancini, president of Friends of McLaren Park, described how a few residents were initially opposed to the proposed fences and lighting but soon became embroiled in the larger issue of synthetic turf and "playing Russian roulette with our children’s safety."

The new synthetic turf consists of a polypropylene fabric backing, an infill of crumb rubber made from shredded tires, and polyethylene fibers that replicate blades of grass. One of the principal concerns is that the crumb rubber infill, made from up to 50,000 tires per field, contains hazardous materials that pose potential health risks. Other health concerns are the presence of lead as a color fixative and the possibility of zinc leaching into the groundwater.

There are also concerns about what to do with the fields when they wear out and whether particles leach into the environment, problems Rec and Park officials have promised to work with turf companies to address. But so far research into the environmental impacts of turf have yielded conflicting results.

Resident Kelley Watts is concerned the "research is only in the very beginning stages" and compares the situation to the 1940s and ’50s when conflicting research about cigarettes was emerging.

Concerns that turf overheats on hot days led to ongoing moratoriums in Los Angeles and New York City. San Francisco’s mild climate doesn’t create the same problem, although it does have the underlying issue that synthetic turf absorbs heat and replaces carbon-absorbing grass, contributing to what is known as the "heat-island effect," a factor in global warming.

The Athena Institute, an Ontario, Canada, nonprofit, estimates that for the average synthetic soccer field to be carbon-neutral, 1,861 trees would have to be planted and allowed to grow for 10 years.

Kimball Field is in the process of converting but the next project, and potential fight, will be at Golden Gate Park’s Beach Chalet soccer fields next year.