(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.