The following opinion piece is from a group of South Orange-Maplewood parents collaborating as the MAPSO Recreation Fields Task Force, which previously authored two pieces on this subject: OPINION: The Case for Fixing Our Fields and Opinion: Fix Our Fields. Let the Kids Play, Let All the Kids Play.
When it comes to recreational fields, there are two truths we can all agree on – everyone has a favorite type of surface and there is no “right” choice, just the choice that is right for our communities and our kids who use the fields. There’s a certain beauty to a newly mowed lawn or field that is lush and green, which means it’s well maintained, properly watered, and use is proportional.
But, for South Orange-Maplewood, such a “field of dreams” is beyond our residential capacity when it comes to Underhill and Ritzer fields. With our highly dense neighborhoods crowding out our public spaces, our towns are severely lacking in open spaces (i.e., parks and playgrounds). The reality of today is that we must put aside fanciful dreams and focus on practical realities that prioritize (1) safety (stability and footing), (2) playability (consistency and confidence); and (3) aesthetics.
Having established safety, playability and aesthetics as our priorities, we see an opportunity to move forward as a community as we band together as strong advocates for synthetic surfaces to be upgraded at Underhill and constructed at Ritzer.
But, while we’re here, let’s also clear up a few misconceptions discussed in small circles in town; misconceptions that build off fabricated fear, rely on residents to not research actual truths, and lean on the well-worn “NIMBY” decision making that has kept our schools from delivering against the potential for our children for year over year over year. Of late, the unfounded concerns about moving forward with upgrading Underhill and constructing synthetic fields at Ritzer coalesce around three themes – recycling/disposability, heat transfers, and a DIY plan for grass growth.
First, recycling. Our working assumption is that disposal or recycling of turf is factored into the costs presented for the projects at Underhill and Ritzer. This is, ultimately, not a decision to be made by the Fields Task Force or any one community member. However, our research indicates that like most industries (from shipwrecked cruise ships to undersea cables), salvage is built into the equation. When synthetic surfaces wear out and need to be replaced, they are not always just rolled up and hauled away to a landfill. Grass carpets can be reused for other sports fields or repurposed as green patches on putting greens or other areas while the infill components can be separated, cleaned and repurposed in other settings. Based on current estimates, synthetic field elements can be recycled or reused at an astonishing rate of up to 95 percent.
Second, heat transfer. Another myth countered by research is the notion that playing surfaces on synthetic fields absorbs and retains heat that makes fields unplayable. But this is a first-generation synthetic field problem (think rubber and plastic filled fields) that has already been solved for with new, fourth-generation products (think cork – abundant and sustainable). Current infill products lower temperatures to a level more consistent with natural grass on a hot day. Laboratory tests demonstrate such infill lower temperatures by 35 degrees versus traditional sand/rubber systems.
But we are getting WAY ahead of ourselves with this one as the conversation at this juncture. The Board of School Estimate (BSE) voting on the Capital Improvement Plan on Wednesday, July 10. [Editor’s note: The meeting takes place at 525 Academy Street and begins at 7 p.m.] At this point, neither the BSE nor the Board of Education (BOE) are voting on materials or architectural plans, as all of that comes MUCH later. As with every single bond vote, the BSE does not vote with full specifications beforehand. They vote to approve the funding for the project itself, THEN the architects prepare detailed proposals, which get debated/approved by the BOE, and then the projects are sent out for bid.
Third, DIY. Showing admirable gumption, there’s a DIY mini experiment taking place at Ritzer which, not to overstate the obvious, seems to show that under ideal conditions, with abundant rain, and without an ounce of real-world use, grass can grow on a field left as fallow. If only we lived in a community that had the room, patience, and privilege to quarantine a field of play as a “vanity project.” Instead, we have ever-expanding student populations that crowd our classrooms – both indoor and outdoor – and barely enough time and resources in the school day and school year to get our students up to educational proficiency, much less engage in grounds maintenance. Current estimates indicate our student population is growing at record numbers with an increase of more than 500 students in the last five years and another influx of 600+ expected in the next four. These numbers demand action now and will not wait for the “don’t walk on the growing grass” signs to come down so they can take to the recreational fields for physical education classes, marching band practice, and soccer tryouts.
We encourage every member of our two towns to talk with any student athlete who’s been left without proper facilities for classwork or recreation. More than that, we encourage neighbors to walk the fields personally – and not under fabricated circumstances as our DIYers would have you believe. Do it in the dog days of summer, do it after a season of lacrosse, do it after the marching band works the fields hard for months as they perfect their craft. Do this and you’ll know our kids play in unsafe and unattractive rocky dustbowls.
We can do better for our kids and for our towns. The time to finesse the details is still to come. Now is the time to vote for the future of our students. Our kids deserve world-class facilities and the Capital Improvement Plan can make that a reality. Let’s show our commitment now.
MAPSO Recreation Fields Task Force — Brian Callahan, Carol Fardin, Catherine Pieroni, Chris Trzaska, Glenn Minerley, Madhu Pai, Marian Cutler, Mike Laskowski, Rob Clark, Sara Knutsen