Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Homework on Groundwork

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Homework on Groundwork

Article excerpt

Of the many variables in deciding to convert to synthetic turf for playing fields, cost is just the starting point

Mac or PC? Cotton or polyester? Natural or synthetic turf ? Life is full of such choices. But for agency directors, none can be quite so vexing as choosing turf surfaces for their playing fields. In the real world of budgets and competing points of view, deciding on natural or synthetic turf can take years. Most communities don't begin the process until demand begins to clearly outstrip their inventory of available playing fields. Then they begin the lengthy process of community engagement, meetings, surveys, intricate cost/revenue analyses, and vetting health concerns.

That was the situation facing the park and recreation agencies interviewed by Parks & Recreation. Previous articles in the magazine have explored the advantages and disadvantages of each surface (December 2010, June 2011). This month, agency directors discuss their decision-making processes and what they learned along the way. Their takeaway for other park operators is that by adding synthetic turf to their inventories of natural turf fields, they were able to significantly increase the number of usage hours- and user fees-which helped offset the installation costs of the former.

The city of El Paso, Texas, recently faced the situation of increasing demand for playing times on its fields. With a population of 700,000, the city occupies close to 70 percent of El Paso County, nearly 200 square miles.

Joel McKnight, deputy director of general services, says his department uses a basic rule of thumb for managing their fields. A field, he says, can endure between 650 and 800 hours of use before showing significant damage. A lighted playing field with synthetic turf, however, can absorb up to 3,000 hours of use on an annual basis.

"It was a no-brainer," McKnight says of their decision to convert a portion of their fields to synthetic turf.

El Paso recently passed a $100 million issue to address its quality of life needs. Parks will receive monies from the bond funding to undertake several pilot projects.

In San Diego, California, the parks and recreation department has reached the halfway point in a longterm investment to convert its most intensely used sports fields from natural to synthetic turf.

"Our research and experience indicate that, in our climate and economy, the lifetime financial costs of synthetic turf and natural grass are about the same," says Brian Albright, director, County of San Diego Parks and Recreation. "However, because synthetic turf allows us so many additional programmable hours, it is actually less costly by the hour of use. Equally important, synthetic turf allows us to conserve water, which is extremely important in southern California and consistent with our environmental stewardship ethic."

Needham, Massachusetts, faced similar pressure on its playing fields. Unlike El Paso, which continues to experience population growth, this 300-year-old Boston suburb has little land leftfor new playing fields.

Patricia Carey serves as director of Needham's Park and Recreation Commission, which oversees scheduling and setting of policies for the city's park and recreation programs. She says their conversation began in 1999 and 2000 in an effort to deal with the increasing number of requests to use their fields. The commission undertook numerous studies and surveys to gauge community sentiment. One survey consisted of "philosophical questions" to reconcile the different points of view for closing the gap between demand and inventory.

"The philosophical questions were used in 2002, before any formal discussions about synthetic turf were held," Carey says. "Since we didn't have new fields being added to the inventory, we wanted the groups to discuss how best to permit out the fields fairly.

"When the groups would approach me individually, or go to the Park and Recreation Commission, each with great reasons why their individual organization should have priority, they couldn't understand why the commission or staffwouldn't support their reasons and give additional space," Carey continues. …

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