I have read through the updated plan and there has clearly been a lot of work put into this document; I appreciate that many people have spent time and effort to write it. However, I am discouraged. I know the City is balancing many differing needs, desires, and interest groups, and while I understand that it is impossible to make all people 100% happy, I do think that there is a way to increase the use we get out of these fields while at the same time keeping them grass, and increasing the quality and quantity of Somerville's green space.
There are a few issues that require further explanation.
1. On page 88 under FAQs: Maintenance and Best Practices, the Sports Turf Managers Association is cited as recommending 500 hours of use on a natural grass field. I have also seen this attribution in City presentations, as well as from Weston and Sampson regarding Lincoln Park. I spoke to Kristen Althouse, education manager at STMA, in March of this year, to get more information on this recommendation because it was a lot lower than multiple professional grass field managers were saying grass could take. She said that STMA does not have a recommendation for a maximum use on natural grass fields. She said enough people have asked about this that they were working on coming up with a recommendation, but "there are so many variables that go into determining the number of usage hours a field can withstand – soil type, turfgrass type, weather, maintenance practices, sport being played, etc. Also, STMA is researching these variables over the course of the next year and hopes to have some technology available to the public to help calculate the number of hours natural grass fields can withstand and still remain safe."
2. On the same page, you say "the June 2013 Gale Athletic Fields Assessment & Master Plan commissioned by the City estimates that 'based on original field construction and current maintenance practice…each natural turf field is capable of experiencing no more than 250 team uses per year without detrimental break down of the turf.' They define a team use as '10-20 persons using the field for a 1-2 hour event.' The event number translated to maximum time equals 500 hours." Considering that the Gale study was basing their estimate on field construction and current maintenance, this needs to be reconsidered. Our fields were all poorly constructed and have had abysmal maintenance. Since the whole point of a new Parks and Rec department is to better maintain our fields, and since an entire section of the revised plan addresses how to better maintain our newly constructed fields, Gale's recommendation is no longer valid.
3. On page 38 under best practices, natural grass diamond sports fields have an 800 hour use limit. On page 56, Trum is listed as a field "in relatively good condition that we do not intend to overhaul." On page 84, the chart says that Trum Field has 2,094 hours of permitted use, which is over two and a half times the permitted hours recommended for best practices. Please explain the discrepancy of why a field in relatively good condition that is currently sustaining over 2,000 hours of permitted use, needs to be reduced to 800 hours of use.
4. A year's rest time is recommended in the plan after a grass field is seeded and before it can be used. After Chip Osborne's organic grass care forum in Swampscott in April, which Luisa Oliveira and Jill Lathan attended, I spoke with Chip about rest requirements on grass fields. He agreed that a newly seeded grass field does need months of rest, if not a year, but that a sodded field could be used much sooner. While it is more expensive upfront, in his experience he said a sod field is about the same money in the end. I would like the City to talk to Chip or someone else equally knowledgeable about this to learn more about a sod option.
5. On page 89 I believe number 4 refers to organic grass care. Perhaps number 3 does as well, though that is unclear. I go back to Chip Osborne's forum and his assertion that an organically-maintained grass sports field is not only the best choice for the environment, it actually produces the strongest, healthiest, most durable grass field. It doesn't have to be a choice of health vs. usability, because organic gives you both, at least according to Chip, who happens to be an expert in this field. I again beg you to speak to him about this option. He has done it in Marblehead, MA, which has similar use requirements and certainly is in a similar climate to Somerville.
6. Adding artificial turf fields at Winter Hill and Healey is, once again, putting plastic into two of our least green areas of town. I understand that currently there is asphalt at these locations, so we are not removing green space, but think about the rare opportunity we have to actually legitimately add green space in an area of vulnerability.
7. The City is right to address the obesity epidemic. We must find ways to get our residents active and exercising. However, I have not heard any organized youth sports group say that there is more demand to join than the fields can accommodate. Based on available City numbers and the 2010 census, approximately 1,660 (or 18% of our under-18 population and 2% of the total population) play in organized youth sports requiring fields. Turf might allow fewer rainouts but would not increase participation.
Let's focus on athletic activities for the 82% of our youth not in organized field sports. The money used to cover our grass fields in plastic could be better used to increase access to basketball and other exercise programs for more kids. And in the summer, when organized sports are on hiatus, more children would use a grass field than a turf one because grass fields are cooler. On a 93 degree day in September of last year, the artificial turf field at the East Somerville Community School was registering 140 degrees at 2:30 in the afternoon. If we are concerned about the health of our youth, we should make sure that they have access to healthy, cool, natural outdoor spaces. Our fields are the majority of Somerville’s green space. In a city with the smallest amount of green space in Massachusetts, we can’t afford to lose any of our fields to plastic.
8. On page 76 it mentions an RFP for a Fields Maintenance Plan consultant. Who is writing this? What are the guidelines that will be used to determine their qualifications if we do not currently even know what is needed to properly maintain a grass field?
9. Speaking to the economics of fields, considering that a grass field can be properly maintained for a fraction of the cost of installing an artificial turf one, and considering Somerville needs to fund an additional $50 million for the GLX, as well as construction on the High School, wouldn't it behoove us to attempt a few years of proper maintenance of our grass fields before we pay millions of dollars for the proposed artificial turf fields in this plan? It could end up saving us millions of dollars. And grass improvements can begin immediately.
10. On page 61 it says, regarding artificial turf fields, that "fortunately, there are a number of safe and healthy options to choose from." Currently, crumb rubber's potential catastrophic health concerns are finally being evaluated by the EPA. However, no matter what infill is used, whether it be crushed tires or expensive and short-lived corkonut, or something in between, there is no getting around the fact that the plastic playing surface is hot, its carbon footprint is enormous, its recyclability at the end of its lifespan dubious and expensive, and its destruction of living green space certain. Once plastic is laid down, the space will not be returned to living plants without extreme expense. It contributes to global warming, both in its production and in its heat output. Grass is cool. In this time on our planet where not just scientists but the general population now believes that human-induced climate change is upon us, it does not make sense to increase our heat output and use of environmentally destructive materials. We need to make sacrifices if we want Earth to remain livable. We are faced with a choice: plastic perfection on our sports fields vs. the health of the planet we will leave for our grandchildren.
We truly can achieve significantly greater use of our grass fields with a little guidance. We have nationally-recognized industry leaders working in the greater Boston area. Please consult with them before we permanently destroy the little green space that we have. I have given Arn, Brad, Luisa, and Jill the contact info for a few of these experts, but I am happy to resend it if need be.
Somerville needs more green space and more use of our fields. We are trusting the City to thoroughly investigate all options as they move forward with improvement plans.
Green & Open Somerville