Finding the Right Turf Solution for Your Fields
By Emily Tipping
Since its purchase in 1637 by Dutch Governor Wouter van Twiller, Randall's Island—a nearly 275-acre island situated along the East River between Northern Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx has seen a wide variety of uses. Farmers tilled its soil, British soldiers used it as a station and eventually it was home to a burial ground for the poor, a home for juvenile delinquents, an asylum, a hospital and a rest home for Civil War vets. It wasn't until the 1930s that the island was cleared of all these institutions and began to transform into its current configuration—as a home to active recreation, drawing more than 700,000 visitors each year.
The park is home to the largest collection of ballfields in New York City, and it's also currently home to the country's largest project aimed at renovating athletic fields in the United States. It's a huge undertaking, ultimately involving more than 60 new fields and increasing the city's count of ballfields by more than 5 percent, adding more than 48,000 hours of additional playing time for current and new users.
"The primary thrust of the project is basically to reconstruct and augment all of the active recreation areas on Randall's Island," said Eric Peterson, deputy administrator, Randall's Island, City of New York Parks and Recreation. There's an effort to improve circulation into and out of the park, as well as some environmental projects including wetlands restoration. At this point, the project is about 65 percent complete.
The park, Peterson said, gets a whole lot of use, and the parks and recreation department is partnering with other city agencies, including the Department of Education, to improve accessibility to the island for kids and for others. He added that the circulation patterns on the island are being reconceived as part of this effort.
"It's a very car-dependent place—one of the most car-dependent places in New York City," he explained. "A large number of visitors drive, because there's one bus and no subway service. So we're providing a separate pedestrian and motor vehicle circulation to keep the cars on a central vehicular circulation path and away from the pedestrians and farther away from the fields."
And the fields—they're like a sports lover's dream. In this city, where ballfields are so heavily scheduled it can be tough to reschedule a rainout, the addition of so many ballfields on the island is sure to be welcome to the city's diverse citizens. Appropriately, the fields will accommodate a wide diversity of sports, including soccer, softball, baseball, lacrosse, football, field hockey and rugby. The project includes a mix of natural turf fields as well as artificial turf fields. As Peterson said, often the determination between natural and synthetic turf is made by the site and the situation. What's right in one instance will not always be right in another.
One major consideration, he said, is usage. That can mean the sport being played on the field—soccer or baseball—and it can also mean the amount of play—games and practices—that are scheduled on a field.
"We found that for intensive soccer play, it's very difficult for a natural grass field to really do well, because grass just can't take that constant 12-month-a-year, 12-hour-a-day soccer play," Peterson said. "You've got the difference between 22 people in cleats constantly running around a field and 10 people at a time standing on mostly a skin clay infield and not running back and forth constantly. Baseball and softball are a little easier on the grass."
Other concerns when making the decision include landscape and budgets. "It's more expensive to construct a synthetic field than even a really nice natural turf field with irrigation and everything else," Peterson said.
Ultimately, Randall's Island might make a perfect case example of how to select the appropriate surface for your sports fields: Choose synthetic when you need to maximize playing time and in areas where the grass is harder to grow, and choose natural where you have the resources to maintain it.
So when you don't have 60-plus fields to choose a surface for, but just one or even a small handful, you're less likely to mix it up the way New York has on Randall's Island. Many municipalities, schools, colleges and sports facilities choose natural turf. It's less expensive than synthetic, but there are many steps to proper maintenance. Steadfast care of your natural turf fields is the key to ensuring they're safe, accessible and will last through the playing season.
First of all, you need to be aware of which turfgrass is right for your area and application. Some varieties of turfgrass will do better in warmer climates, some in cooler climates, some can handle a bit of shade, while others cannot. Choosing the right variety for your application ultimately will save your maintenance dollars as you'll need less pesticide, less herbicide, less fertilizer, less water—and less energy, staff resources and time to apply those necessities.
To maintain a healthy field, however, you will need to periodically apply these solutions. Plants are growing, living things, so they do need water. You'll need to be prepared to irrigate your fields, especially in a drought, or suffer the consequences—a dried-out, brown field not suitable for play. You can install an irrigation system when you build your field, which will save labor in the long run, or you can get a less costly, portable system that can be moved around the field to where it's needed (a more labor-intensive option).
In addition to regular application of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides throughout the growing season, you'll also need to aerate your field a handful of times throughout the year—two to five times, according to the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). This helps reduce the soil compaction that comes from heavy play on the fields. As the fields get more and more compacted, game after game, they might eventually become hard enough to impact safety for the athletes on your field, the association states.
OK, you've watered, fertilized, applied weed and pest control and aerated—that's it, right? Nope, you're not done yet. To maintain a nice, dense field, you're also going to need to overseed throughout the season, and you may also need to top-dress the field with sand, the STMA reports.
With all of that input, there are still things you need to do to ensure your field remains healthy and safe for play. One of the most important is to remember that your field needs a rest. Natural turf can't handle constant 12-hour-a-day play, seven days a week. You'll need to schedule your field carefully to ensure it's not overused, and when it rains, you might have to cancel play altogether to ensure the field doesn't get torn up.
That all adds up to a lot of maintenance, and the reason so many facilities are switching to synthetic turf is that all of this maintenance can be difficult to keep up with.
"I think in an ideal world, natural grass would be the situation that everyone would love to have their athletic field be," said Mark Novak, senior associate in the sport group at Stantec, "but we don't live in the ideal world. Most don't have the ideal climate, resources, facility teams or maintenance teams to keep up with the physical demands of a natural grass field."
That's especially true, he said, in New England, where keeping the fields safe and playable for competition is a huge challenge, especially for municipalities and high schools, which tend to have less experienced teams to handle the fields' requirements.
"Being a former athlete—and a majority of our staff here are former athletes—natural grass is what we would all love to play on," Novak said, "but in the end, it's not always the best choice."
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."
When facilities want to increase play on fields and in situations where the environment makes natural turf maintenance a heavy drain on the facility's resources, the decision is often made to switch to synthetic turf. Most often used for heavy-traffic sports that tend to wear out the fields, like soccer and football, synthetic turf is used less often in baseball fields, though there are certainly plenty of baseball and softball fields that buck this trend.
One recent installation of six new playing fields at Diamond Nation in Flemington, N.J., highlights this fact. Spanning 65 acres, Diamond Nation is home to the nationally renowned Jack Cust Baseball Academy, as well as the new Jennie Finch Softball Academy. It's billed as a one-of-a-kind sports complex and ultimately features seven synthetic turf fields.
The manufacturer of these fields designed the turf specifically for use in baseball and softball, with a slight reduction in fiber pile height and a modest increase in the weight of sand in the rubber-and-sand infill mix. This helps replicate the best characteristics of natural grass, but unlike natural grass, these fields don't need to rest after a rain.
Being a spring sport, baseball fields can benefit from synthetic turf in regions like New England because their playability in any weather means teams don't have to wait for the snow to melt before they can get out for a practice.
"The climate's a big thing around here, especially when you're looking at early spring sports like lacrosse and baseball," Novak said. "In the early spring, the fields are wet, muddy and often still snow-covered. With a synthetic surface, it affords players the luxury to get on the fields and practice and play their games earlier in the season. With natural, they could destroy the field in the first week of the season."
The ability to play in any season was one of the many reasons New York chose to install some synthetic fields at Randall's Island Park too. In fact, this benefit played out earlier this year when some of the newest synthetic turf fields played host to a 48-team national rugby tournament. Despite wet weather in the morning, the fields, located in the shadow of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, were ready for play. This location highlights yet another benefit of synthetic: you don't need sunlight or perfect climate conditions to grow synthetic grass. In this location, the East River's salt air and the shadow of the bridge made it difficult to grow natural grass. This makes a synthetic solution ideal for this spot.
Having so many synthetic turf fields that can remain in play in any weather means Randall's Island can rest its natural turf fields when that's needed. It creates a perfect balance in a city where there's plenty of need for more places to play.
"Land is finite, and budgets are finite," Peterson said. "The reality is in most of New York City, every field will be in use at peak times. Having more fields does give us more flexibility to reschedule games that have been called, but unfortunately, if the field's scheduled to be in use seven days a week, we don't have a lot of time to do rainouts. I'd rather they play on a wet synthetic field, because they won't do the same damage."
Perhaps the greatest benefit touted for synthetic turf, though, is the drastically reduced maintenance requirements. If your facility doesn't have a team that can stay on top of the diverse needs of a natural turf field, a synthetic turf field can help ease that burden.
"By no means are they maintenance-free—that is a misnomer," Novak said. "But they do offer reduced maintenance—reduced use of gas-powered maintenance equipment and the elimination of the application of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides."
Many players believe that the newest synthetic turf fields reduce injuries, saying it's easier on knees and joints. Others will always prefer natural. Recently, two synthetic turf manufacturers have launched research efforts to look into some of these issues (see Sidebar on page 6), but in the meantime, proper maintenance is the key to reducing risk, no matter which type of field your facility relies on.
And no matter what you do, there will always be detractors—some who feel natural turf is too resource-intensive, others who believe synthetic turf is creating a lead hazard, a risk of heat injury or some other problem.
Whatever the issue, it's important to stay ahead of the buzz, and Peterson said New York has measures in place to monitor any health issues associated with its synthetic fields. "We're working with the New York City Health Department to monitor all those issues, both the temperature and any kind of contamination," he explained. "We're putting in city-wide a protocol with the health department to monitor these synthetic fields in terms of temperature and potential carcinogens and lead that could be in the synthetic materials."
This attention to lead and other potential problems doesn't come from nowhere. In April 2008, concerns came up about lead in synthetic turf when elevated levels were found in several fields in New Jersey. Since that initial report, though, the findings were found inaccurate. As it turns out, the criteria for measuring lead levels in soil were used on those fields, and different criteria entirely are generally used on synthetic turf. The issue was resolved on July 30, 2008, when a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) evaluation concluded that there's no risk from exposure to lead for young children on synthetic fields.
But just because the CPSC has given its blessing, that doesn't mean the worries have dissipated. In many areas, the public raises concerns when synthetic turf fields are planned.
According to Novak, a little bit of education can go a long way toward resolving these fears. "I like to refer people with concerns to the Synthetic Turf Council Web site, which has a lot of information on both sides of the issue," he said. "The overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that these fields are safe, not only for health and human safety, but for the environment. You look at New York and California, they're probably two of the more conservative states in terms of the way they approach health and human safety and the safety of the environment, and recent reports suggest that these fields are not a concern."
Despite these findings that synthetics are safe, manufacturers are taking voluntary steps to further reduce the presence of lead in synthetic turf products. One company recently announced it was planning to eliminate any intentionally added lead from its synthetic turf products.
Temperature has also been listed as a concern by many. When the summer sun beats down on the synthetic turf field during the summer, it can raise temperatures to what some consider dangerous levels. Peterson said the New York City parks department has been paying close attention to this issue. In the case of Randall's Island, it means the city has chosen to go with a lighter-colored infill material that does not absorb as much solar radiation.
But it's not just synthetic turf that can raise concerns. For example, across the river from Randall's Park was a soccer field that was closed for many years because it had become a dustbowl that was aggravating asthma conditions in the surrounding neighborhood. "Putting a synthetic field in there has provided a tremendous amount of recreational opportunities for people in that neighborhood. It's also solved the dust problem," Peterson said.
Ultimately the issue is complex. Maintaining a natural turf field requires you to burn more gasoline, use water to irrigate in a drought and most likely put down fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides.
"There's no perfect answer," Peterson said. "The right answer for each site means a mix. In the case of the Randall's Island fields, we've sited the fields, the uses and the materials in a pretty good way where we have synthetic fields that have a little bit of shade over them from the tree canopy used for soccer day in and day out all year long. We have other grass fields used for soccer, but not so constantly because we now have a stable of more fields and many are synthetic so when we do schedule the fields, we can in off-peak times give the fields a rest. We need all 20-some of our soccer fields in the fall after school, after work and during the day on the weekends, but during the school day we don't need all of them. We need half for gym classes, college football and fitness programs, but we can accommodate them on the synthetics, keeping the most intensive use there, and giving the grass a chance to recover and grow."
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