Supplement Feature - September 2009
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Tackling Turf

Finding the Right Turf Solution for Your Fields

By Emily Tipping

Investigation Stations

Two partnerships were recently announced between university turf programs and synthetic turf manufacturers: at Penn State University and the University of Tennessee.

The Penn State University partnership aims to research synthetic turf, running tracks and indoor sports surfaces. Named the Center for Sports Surface Research, the intercollegiate program will be managed within the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and headed by Andrew McNitt, an associate professor of soil science regarded as a pioneer in the world of sports surface research.

The project at the University of Tennessee will be called the Center for Safer Athletic Fields. It aims to compare natural grass and synthetic playing surfaces with the goal of improving athletic performance and reducing injuries. The unique outdoor research facility, located in Knoxville, Tenn., will comprise 60 small-scale athletic research fields constructed from a variety of playing surfaces.

The research team will include John Sorochan, associate professor and turfgrass specialist; Jim Brosnan, assistant professor and turfgrass specialist; Tom Samples, UT Extension turfgrass specialist; and Brandon Horvath, a turfgrass pathologist.

Sometimes, however, a park department, school or other organization does have the right resources in place to take care of a natural turf field. Novak cited two examples that Stantec is involved in: Teddy Eberol's Red Sox Fields at Lederman Park in Boston, and Heritage Field, the project that will transform the old Yankee Stadium into a park with a high-end natural grass field for community use.

Located along the Charles River on Boston's famed Esplanade—part of the Frederick Law Olmsted legacy—the new athletic fields at Lederman Park are part of an impressive partnership between public agencies like the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, with local nonprofit organizations including the Red Sox Foundation, Hill House and the Esplanade Association. These groups cooperated to raise more than $1.8 million in private funds to rebuild the fields and correct the persistent flooding that used to prevent play. This partnership is also part of the key to making the choice of natural turf for the fields successful.

"One of the benefits of Teddy Ebersol, and the reason it's successful as a natural grass field is when they decided to move forward, they set up a continuing fund to take care of the field," Novak explained.

Randall's Island also has a partnership with a private organization, the Randall's Island Sports Foundation, which will help keep the island's natural turf fields in playing shape. The new natural turf fields on the island have a sand-heavy soil mix to ensure they drain quickly. This means play can resume more quickly after a downpour, but it also means more irrigation and manpower to irrigate those fields when it doesn't rain, in addition to the regular maintenance required. Having the foundation in place helps the city deal with these challenges.

"For a location like Randall's Island where we were lucky to have the Sports Foundation that can provide additional maintenance staff and where there's 60 fields where we can have a larger force of staff dedicated to maintaining those fields, we have the luxury of having these beautifully manicured grass ballfields that in a smaller neighborhood park, you just can't sustain."

One of the other benefits of having natural turf fields on the island, Peterson said, is their flexibility. "The natural turf fields by their nature are more flexible," he said. For example, with the high school soccer season taking place in the fall and baseball and softball in the spring, there's high demand in the after-school hours for one or the other, depending on the season. "Being able to convert fields back and forth is much easier to do on a grass field," Peterson said. "You can dig to put in the goalposts, and then paint the grass for whichever sport you're playing there. We can change over in August from foul lines and baselines to the rectangular dimensions for the soccer field. And then even for the multisport football-soccer-lacrosse-rugby kinds of fields, we can change the field dimensions, and striping is easier on the grass fields."

These solutions work well in these situations, but in some cases, proper care of a natural turf field means hardly anyone gets to use it. This was the case at Harvard University, where a high-quality natural grass, sand-based field was only used six times a year, mainly by the men's football team. "It's probably the most beautiful building on a campus of beautiful buildings and on the National Historic Register and had this gorgeous natural grass field, but it was only used by men, and only six times a year," Novak said. "So they wanted to make it more available, not only to men's and women's teams, but to the rest of the student population. The decision was made to go with synthetic."