More grass fields. Less plastic turf.

On June 6, 2014, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

scott_webBy Renée Scott

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

Somerville government promotes our city as a “great place to live, work, play and raise a family.” For the most part it’s true, which is why we all live here. But there are too few places to play.

Our grass playing fields average 430 events per year, while they should not host over 250 per year. So they become mud holes when it rains and dust bowls when it’s dry. Just ask the Alibrandis what it’s like to play at Trum Field.

Somerville has the lowest proportion of open space in Massachusetts, just 6.75%, and that includes cemeteries and paved schoolyards. Even denser than us, New York City still enjoys four times the open space that we do, while 25.4% of Manhattan is open space. Meanwhile, in Somerville developers cram as many condos as possible onto the few remaining undeveloped lots.

The best and most obvious solution is not an easy one: we need more grass fields.

Whether used for organized sports, community events, or family recreation, grass fields are an essential part of a healthy community.

Some people, in and out of city government, would like to cover the busier fields with artificial turf. They sincerely believe that it would be cheaper and would eliminate most rainouts. This is a tragedy in the making.

A well-made 85,000-square-foot grass field on an absorptive sand bed costs between $250,000 and $350,000 to lay down. Covered with plastic grass, the same field costs between $850,000 and $1 million to install, and another half-million to replace every eight-to-ten years.

Annual maintenance costs are about the same for both, though factoring in replacement costs of the plastic turf brings grass field maintenance costs to only half those of most basic synthetic turf fields over a ten-year period. A top-of-the-line synthetic field is triple the average cost of grass.

To put it another way, the SportsTurf Managers Association determined a dollars-per-square-foot cost incorporating construction and maintenance. They calculated that natural grass with a coarse sand substrate is $3.50-to-$5.25 per square foot; synthetic turf is $7.80-to-$10.75 per square foot.

It’s true that players can slosh through a swampy synthetic turf field without damaging the plastic. But a grass-over-sand field can accommodate a surprisingly heavy amount of rainfall. I see that happen when my kids play away games. While Somerville grass fields are rained out, those within 30 minutes of here are playable.

And plastic turf has serious environmental problems. Our flood-prone city needs more ways to absorb water, not fewer.

Plastic turf leaches chemicals into the surrounding soil and water table. It adds to the heat island effect, a phenomenon where cities get significantly hotter than the areas surrounding them. On a 94ºF summer day, synthetic turf can reach temps of 165ºF. Plastic turf destroys the soil and ecosystem below it and causes pollution from the substrate fill, which is most often made from crumbled tires, themselves considered to be a hazardous waste during disposal.

Kids who play on plastic turf are injured more frequently and more severely. Cleats grab onto it, while grass is more forgiving. This causes hyperextension of joints, as well as sprains and ruptures. Skin abrasions are more common, and the scrapes have an increased chance of infection if the turf is not properly sanitized, which requires additional cost. The crumbled rubber substrate worsens asthmatic conditions.

Once a field is turned into artificial turf, it is effectively shut down for any use other than organized sports. Food and drink are not allowed on it. The field is usually fenced and locked, so even if you wanted to sit on plastic carpet and have a picnic dinner, you couldn’t. Plastic turf prevents most other non-sport activities from occurring.

If we could eke out some more space for new fields, it would relieve the pressure on our current ones. And, with some care, they can be lush spaces that are enjoyed by all Villens. Perhaps the city could give modest tax abatements to property owners who allowed their fallow lots to be used as fields during the time that they remain undeveloped.

So where do we find such spaces? Brickbottom? Innerbelt? Assembly Square? Rooftops or parking lots? We must think creatively, be willing to look beyond the typical, and find solutions that will work, both in the short term and for generations.

For almost two centuries we’ve been a city of innovators. And I’m not talking about Fluff.

From figuring out how to manufacture the first seamless brass tubes, to designing a mediation program that reopened our high school when it was closed by a race riot and was copied in 27 other communities across the Commonwealth, Villens have found creative solutions for real-world problems. Just read some of Monty Doherty’s Somerville Times columns for inspiration.

The title of “Least Green City in the Commonwealth” is a dubious honor. But we Villens are smart enough to neither mingle in the mud, nor play on the plastic.


 Renée Scott is a mother of three who lives in the Union Square neighborhood. She may be reached at


23 Responses to “More grass fields. Less plastic turf.”

  1. Meme says:

    Ms. Scott. Great idea, when are you starting? I’m assuming that since you think this is such a great idea you are willing to put your money where your mouth is and start this project.

    Of course I am being sarcastic. The point that you left out of your article is that you would like to use the police to take money from others to fund the pet project that you deem most important. More important then spending on more/better teachers, more fire fighting equipment, or helping the homeless. More important then reducing the property tax burden of single parents, or those on fixed incomes.

    Why dont you go back to trying to restrict free speech? I don’t consider myself a prudish person, and I feel like I’m pretty liberal about things. But it was such an awful image, you taking others money for your pet project. I found it pretty shocking that it was allowed.

  2. Ruairi says:

    Wow, that’s a harsh response to, what seemed to me, to be a perfectly reasoned piece. I’ll most likely raise my family here and the lack of green space is concerning. I’m not opposed to development but I think it’s sad to see the grass space at the front of the funeral home on Washington is going to be turned into condos. There’s no green space near where I live and there is plenty of wasted space around Brickbottom and the Inner belt. The city seems to be preoccupied with new development in Union and Assembly row, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that they put as much effort into providing communal park space.

  3. MarketMan says:

    Meme: Wow!! You must be a very miserable person. I cannot believe that anyone would be so negative to such a great idea for ALL people. She is asking for more green open space for the residents of Somerville. That doesn’t sound like your typical “pet project”. I think it is a worthy goal. Even mini parks instead of the densely packed condos that are still going up would be useful. I wouldn’t mind if the old powderhouse school just became a big open field. No play equipment. Just a field for people to use and enjoy.

  4. Uncle Rocco says:

    The City drops a fortune for fireworks shows and dancing ponies to lure customers into Saks Fifth Avenue and $3,000 a month apartments over at Assembly Row. Meanwhile, 2 minutes down the road, Foss Park is rotting away.

    Funny how you’ll never see PR photos of East Somerville kids having to play soccer on bare ground as hard as concrete alongside those of the bright smiling youngsters getting their faces painted in front of Legoland.

  5. A liberal is someone who will give you the shirt right off of someone else’s back.

  6. The harsh reality is that the city has absolutely no intention of creating any green space worth providing for residents of Ward 7, unless Tufts had control, and what had been proposed was a playground for the childcare center and activities geared towards Tufts students. Their last proposal was for 240 underground parking spaces for graduate student classes as well as day time classes for Engineering and relocation of Eliot Pearson. If you go to the meetings, you will hear from the major stakeholders who don’t want it because it does not provide a cash value to them, same goes for affordable housing. They spread vicious rumors about how it would bring down home values. Well I’ve got news for you, many of us do not plan to sell. We have worked to hard for too long, to just hand it over to more greed and gentrification profiteers who will just flip it again and again until only the rich can afford to be here.

    Great point, Uncle Rocco. If they are going to improve the conditions of the existing athletic fields, it should be for all not just for the chosen few.
    I would guess that with all the millions we pay in taxes, they could set up an account for that, but I’m sure this mayor is not too interested, especially if he gets to build his own private estate in the middle of Union Square. If he really wanted to improve the school system and fields, he would have done it. He and his friends are only interested in condos and keeping their developers happy. Don’t be surprised if we don’t have any schools left in the next ten years. He caters to the childless singles and couples who would prefer to move to Lexington when their kids are ready for school. Why do you think we are living in a city where our real estate is only affordable to a certain class of people? What happened to the Kraft Soccer Field at the end of Assembly Row? Boston Globe quoted a developer stating it was “not a good idea”–for him and his investors, but not for the city residents and revenue.

  7. Bryan Murphy says:

    Hey Meme, Ms. Scott wants the city to spend less money, not more. And what’s this weird about using the police to take money? Please work on your reading comprehension. Or is the problem deeper?

  8. Jim says:

    Back on topic, we really need more playing fields in this town. Turf or grass, I’ll take whatever we can get.

    Along those lines, when the public scoping meetings for the redevelopment of the PHCS happen, please show up and voice support for carving out a playing field on that property. It’s Somerville property and therefore belongs to the community. There is enough space to carve out a small field for youth soccer/tee ball and there is no reason to turn the entire parcel over to a private developer………..since once its gone we’ll never get it back

  9. Voice of reason says:

    Meme, I’ve tried to re-read your rant several times, and I still can’t grasp what it is exactly you are complaining about. Except that you’re complaining.

    This isn’t about spending money that could otherwise be spent on teachers/low income families/whatever. The author actually stated that natural grass is cheaper than artifical turf. It will SAVE the city money. Duh.

    What’s this about police and free speech? You’re clearly confused.

  10. PixiePocahontas says:

    In the 60’s it was the site of a large baseball field. Jim is right it does belong to the community but each time we attend meetings to voice our desire for open space it falls on deaf ears. The preservation act was passed to provide a percentage of our tax funds to go towards open space options. Our overall frustration is dealing with a mayor is shortsighted, who only is concerned with profits for the few and not the benefits of people who live here. Building community gardens, rock climbing walls, physical fitness stations and day care mini playgrounds should be financed by Tufts and other entities which only benefit. It should not be paid by municipal funds which is used for the constituency.

    My suggestion, call or write to your local alderman and other reps. Tell them how important open space and athletic fields are for the children and families of our community. Also tell them the $110k jobs to friends and former aldermen who are already collecting pensions and have other lucrative business deals, law practices, should be laid off. We can find better uses for that money beginning with open space. One or two festivals is more than enough. If they were forced to cut back on things we don’t need, there would be money for parks. They don’t want it because they are only too happy to keep taking from their condo cash cow.

  11. A. Moore says:

    This is a city. We do not expect to have a lot of green space. And with the CEO of Somerville wanting 6000 more units of housing here on his agenda I would not expect more green space but less. And I expect more than the 6000 units as I see other properties being bought that I know of for building housing. This is the way it is when the people don’t run the city.

  12. Mellisa says:

    I’m very liberal and agree more green is what is needed. We should just pave over all open space and paint it green. Everyone wins. Cheap as heck to maintain (a bucket of green paint every few years to cover up the skin/blood) and we get a lot of green! Maybe even paint the sidewalks green and streets? Maybe force all homeowners to paint their hours green too? and only allow green cars. We need to think out of the box as we’re a city of innovators!

    We need more green. I agree and if anyone puts up a billboard on a T stop that I disagree with — yes, paint it green!

  13. PixiePocahontas says:


    The mayors have formed their own committee to build 234,000 units of housing in the entire region. It’s for the workers of biotech industry. There are buildings going up everywhere. Three bedrooms in Assembly are listed at $4100. Those who can afford it are coming from Asia. I guess we know how our nations IOU is being paid off. There are also developers from China who are buying and building in Somerville and neighboring towns.

    You’re right, the town is being run like a corporation. As soon as they announced the GLX coming, they descended on this town like flies.

  14. Joan Sanow says:

    A few doors down the street from where I live, there is what used to be a house that was destroyed by a terrible fire a number of months ago. It appears that the property has been abandoned and I’ve heard many rumors about how this ruined property will be dealt with. The latest is that the property is up for sale.

    The house that burned was squeezed so tightly among four or five other neighboring houses and was so crowded next to the other properties, some incurred collateral damage from the fire.

    This article and the ensuing comments gave me an idea. It would be such a boon to the neighborhood if the city were to buy the property, raze what’s left of the burned out house and reclaim the lot as open space for use by the public. It would be a “pocket park” because the space is not extensive. But some benches, some planted areas, and a bit of pavement for children to use to roller skate or for play would be a lovely addition to the neighborhood with all kinds of civic benefits.

    Keeping the lot open was ease the overcrowding, would provide a pleasant place

  15. PixiePocahontas says:


    It sounds like a great idea, but the developers and certain members of the current administration are only concerned in profits. We in Ward 7 have been trying to raise this concern for the abandoned PHCS which has sat vacant of over 10 years. Residents have attended meetings for 2 years, asking for a park which would be integrated into a modest family housing development. But we have several lawyers, working for city hall’s interests and their own, who are only interested in building $500-750k condo units. The site of what use to be Hawks Cleaners, other businesses which burned 2 years ago, has been the proposed site for such condos. So I don’t expect there to be much interest in green space, since property has become too valuable.

    Please attend meetings, invite your neighbors and let your representatives know we need more green space. 40-50 people attending meetings is not enough.

  16. Sam Franklin says:

    When my kid was young he played soccer on the “grass” field at the then-new Capuano school. It was all dirt and stones after the first month. Yes, it was from over-use. It was a BRAND NEW grass field done POORLY. Then the same thing happened at Lincoln Park. That grass field has been installed TWICE in the recent past. Still it floods, stays swampy, and is dangerous for soccer (and general kids-running-around) due to rocks and holes. Again, grass done poorly.

    A state-of-the-art grass field that would be built in any urban area would be fenced and locked, to be used by permit only. That’s the only way to keep it in good condition. Look at the beautiful, locked up, grass soccer field at Tufts on College Ave (which used to be one big open lawn space). And there’s no mention of the environmental impact of pristine grass. To keep high-end grass well requires expensive maintenance, possibly chemical fertilizers, gas mowers, and loads of watering. It’s hard to imagine Somerville having the money to install and maintain high-end grass fields, which gets us back to grass done poorly.

    Meanwhile now at the Capuano school, SHS teams, Somerville Youth Soccer, adult leagues, and kids-running-around are all playing non-stop on the artificial turf there. There’s a low fence (generally unlocked, always jump-able) that keeps the ball in and stray dogs out.

    And out where I used to live in the suburbs, folks are arguing about PAVING over an open grass area so kids have a skateboard park.

  17. doesn't matter says:

    I don’t care if we have parks or not. My children can’t play in them without getting dog pee or poop on themselves. Until the majority of dog owners show some respect for others, there’s no point in creating parks that will just become unofficial doggie parks. I must add the large number of the dog people who have their own yards beautifully kept and poop on city parks.

  18. Johnnie Jazz says:

    Joan, you must be new here to Somerville. I understand where your heart is here and it’s good, but if you think the city should be buying up properties then you’ve had too much sun today and maybe been hitting the mint juleps a bit too hard. This is a bad idea for many reasons, not least of which is THAT IT IS OUR TAX MONEY the city would be spending, they can’t be trusted (think Joe’s cronies picking and choosing which houses to go after), and the city has lots/buildings already they can’t manage now. You want to add to it? With our money? No thanks.

    Joe would love another slush fund so he can use our money to buy properties and then hand them to his developer buddies. Yikes!

    I like Melissa’s idea. Paint it green.

  19. A. Moore says:

    Nope Joan, they will figure out a way to put condos in it. That’s the Somerville way.

  20. PixiePocahontas says:

    It’s up to the city to create well maintained parks for young athletes. I agree the grass should be natural. Obviously someone is not doing their job when it comes to caring and creating new parks. As mentioned, they should be fenced, locked and supervised. Install signage with penalties for trespassers. This is just another example of poor management and no excuse for not maintaining the fields. Just curious, does someone have a grudge against the coaches? It seems odd why fields are being neglected.
    Then again could be a matter of choice between festivals, slush funds and something else. If you don’t come to meetings and voice your concerns, they will think you are in line with all their decisions.

  21. JPM says:

    This is a good article Renee. A few points. From a purely sports angle turf is great for certain sports and not for others. For lacrosse, and field hockey for example it is great. It’s not so great for soccer where the ball bounce is much higher than on grass and therefore less true.

    One HUGE problem with grass public fields is that you inevitably get dog owners leaving dog mess behind on the grass, and then you start getting broken bottles etc from people hanging around late at night. The field then becomes nasty to play on.

    I can certainly attest to having very nasty burns from turf…large enough to leave scars! I guess my modelling career is over. I would welcome more open space.

  22. JPM says:

    A few more points: Sam hit it out the park when he stated: “A state-of-the-art grass field that would be built in any urban area would be fenced and locked, to be used by permit only. That’s the only way to keep it in good condition.” This is very true. If the grass space is open for games/foot traffic it will simply deteriorate into a mud pool – especially given our weather – even with the best care and maintenance.

    I do not believe that the costs of maintaining a grass field and a turf field would be the same. Old turf fields used to be like “green concrete” – artificial turf technology has improved in leaps and bounds and you now get turf with must longer strands which is more spongey and lasts longer.

    Bottom line any grass field for playing sports which you want to keep in good condition would have to be fenced off and just used for sports and play by permit. It could not be generally open to all resident for all purposes and all times. It just would not keep up. A good example is Central Park…they have very nice grass – but for many months of the year portions are “off limits” and no foot traffic is allowed. This allows the grass to regenerate – and this is for grass that people are only walking and sitting on – not playing on with cleats.

    Don’t believe me? Look at how many professional soccer teams in the English Leagues – (with professional groundskeepers, drainage and some even have under soil heating!!) – have trouble keeping their green fields which are lovely in August turning into mud baths by December. The climate in England is probably comparable – more snow here of course. And this problem is for fields that are played on maybe 3 or 4 times a week for 90 minutes!

  23. ritepride says:

    I agree that that there should be some field areas that are secured so that there is less traffic on them and would thus stay in bettah shape.
    With the cost of keeping the fields in shape they should place video surveillance cameras.

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