Sometime this summer, U of T will begin the replacement of natural grass on the back campus with synthetic turf, in time for Pan Am Games fieldhockey.
But the more we learn about this project, passed by the university's Board of Governors, the more we can identify its erroneous assumptions.
University administrators have tried to sell this plan by claiming synthetic turf will allow greater use of the two fields, exponentially increasing usage time to almost year round, an expansion of nearly 300 per cent.
But the assertion is false. The authorities seem unaware of the International Hockey Federation's 2007 Guide To The Care And Maintenance Of Synthetic Turf Hockey Pitches. Artificial turf must be irrigated before each game and at half time so the turf stays clean and cool in summer, the ball moves more quickly and an added algicide kills algae that colonize it and make it slippery.
At the first risk of frost, the irrigating system must be turned off and drained before the pipes freeze and break. This limits use of the turf to Toronto's average frost-free period of 160 to 170 days, or less than six months.
The average date of the last spring frost is April 30, but this year, students began playing frisbee on the natural green late in March.
Other judgment shortfalls are emerging. Trees and artificial turf are incompatible. Yet Governing Council agreed to place artificial turf in an area surrounded by 90 deciduous trees that shed leaves, twigs, flowers, pollen and seeds. These organic materials are a benefit to natural fields but a hazard to artificial turf.
Organic matter falling from trees can shorten artificial turf life by eight to 10 years. Organic matter nourishes algae, making the turf unsafe. There are many examples where failure to follow recommended practices led to surface failure in less than five years.
But administrators blithely ignored this information by gambling $9.5 million in university and government money on a field surrounded by trees. It's probable that if this project proceeds, the university will be forced to cut down all the trees or erect an inflated dome. Five very large English elms at the western edge have survived 130 years and are likely to be seriously injured.
The sensitivity of artificial turf to damage is emphasized by the prohibitions on those in the bleachers: no smoking, no chewing gum, no food, no drinks except water, no glass containers or bottles, no boots or stiletto heeled shoes.
The buildings surrounding the back campus are heritage structures. The unnatural colour of the artificial field will distort the view, as will the fences with locked gates to control access, the high safety netting, the 16 irrigation canons and the bleachers. The plan flies in the face of protecting the university's precious natural and built heritage.
And for what purpose? We are told the new turf will help satisfy 10,000 students' demand for rec space. What we have not been told is that this area is dedicated solely to field hockey, its turf unsuitable for competitive soccer, football or ultimate frisbee.
So much is wrong with this plan: the university's more-than-a-century-old heritage deserves much more respect.
Paul L. Aird is professor emeritus, faculty of forestry, U of T.