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Ask the Expert: Are Artificial Turf Fields Safe?

Rain damage at Glenhaven Park in Portland. Credit: Portland Parks and Recreation.

After a damp, cold winter that morphed into a damp, cold spring, Portland was recently forced to close all of its grass play fields for several weekends in order to prevent irreparable damage (see right photo). On a typical weekend, the fields are replete with soccer players, kickball tournaments, and pick-up Frisbee games.

Should Portland follow the lead of New York City, the largest municipal buyer of artificial turf in the country, and consider replacing some of its waterlogged grass fields with synthetic surfaces? Health impacts are one important consideration for any city making such decisions, which brings us to our first “Ask the Expert” post:

Since artificial turf is made from synthetic materials and ground-up tires, is it safe for people to play on?

By general consensus, the answer is yes for both adults and children.

A joint study by ALIAPUR, the French government body associated with used tires, and ADEME, the French Agency for Environment and Energy Management, concluded that there is no threat to human health, or the environment.

Turf field at C.S./P.S. 66 schoolyard in Bronx, New York City. Credit: Avery Wham.

Another evaluation, done by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, found that while low levels of lead were associated with artificial turf fields, “young children are not at risk from [the] exposure.” Furthermore, a test result from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services confirmed that lead chromate levels are well below the level that can cause harm to children and athletes using the surface. In fact, the results showed a 50 lb child would have to consume 100 lbs of synthetic turf to be at risk of absorbing enough lead to equal the minimum threshold of elevated blood lead.

While synthetic turf may be chemically safe, risks do still exist. One is from skin burns since synthetic turf does not reflect heat as well as natural grass. A study by Brad Fresenburg at the Department of Horticulture, University of Missouri found that on a 98-degree day, when natural grass had a temperature of 105 degrees, synthetic grass rose to 173 degrees. Also, while natural grass is able to wash out and clean itself from bacteria, saliva and even blood, synthetic turf is not. Therefore a threat of bacterial infections can be higher on synthetic turf, and certain precautions should be taken, such as making sure to treat any “turf burns” acquired on the surface. Fresenburg also points out that due to the increase in velocity and traction associated with artificial turf, injuries such as strains and spasms may be more common. Conversely, while field grass may be natural, it too has drawbacks. Natural grass surface can be uneven, with potholes and slippery, even harder surfaces, especially in the winter. The study even goes on the state that “more concussions per games played occurred on natural grass fields.”

Green Gyms and Medical Miles: Promoting Public Health with Parks

A group looks into a net near a stream at the Milwaukee Urban Ecology Center. Credit: Jeff McAvoy.

We’ve previously looked at ways in which the medical community is using exercise prescriptions as a way to combat obesity and inactivity.  Park prescriptions are only a portion of the spectrum of exercise prescription programs. Fortunately, the growing awareness of the benefits of outdoor exercise – in addition to the cooperation of parks departments, environmental nonprofits, and individual parks – means that these programs should continue to grow.

Once patients have left the doctor’s office with a prescription in hand, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Someone has to ensure that public parks are meeting the needs of people trying to develop good exercise habits, and that newly inspired patients can find interesting and engaging ways to exercise in local parks.

A growing body of evidence that suggests that exercise in the outdoors provides some quantifiable benefits over indoor exercise. A study released February in the journal Environmental Science and Technology analyzed data from 11 different studies that compared benefits from outdoor and indoor exercise programs, and found that outdoor exercise was associated with “greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.” Not surprisingly, those who participated in outdoor exercise “stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.”[1]

Promoting these mental benefits, which in turn lead to physical benefits, is one of the most effective ways for parks to remain at the center of exercise prescription efforts.  Green Gym, a program in the UK, exemplifies this approach. Green Gym began in 1997 as a project of Dr. William Bird and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Green Gym groups meet at least once a week to do several hours of gardening or conservation work, and results from the program demonstrate both physical and psychological benefits, according to a study done by The School of Health and Social Care at Oxford Brookes University. Researchers found a strong trend in decreased depression scores, as well as increases in muscular strength and improvements in cardiovascular fitness.

Another strategy for encouraging repeat park visits is helping to get family members and pets to join in.

Yes, pets – Albuquerque’s Prescription Trails program, in addition to human park prescriptions, offers walking prescriptions for overweight dogs (whose physiques often mimic that of their owners). Charm Linblad, Executive Director of New Mexico Health Care Takes on Diabetes, quips “from experience, you can’t turn down the dog when it is time for a walk, so when the veterinarian writes a prescription for the pet we get a double bonus – the owner gets a walk!”

Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center has seen success in encouraging repeat visits by offering inexpensive family memberships. The Center brings in school groups year-round to its “outdoor classrooms,” and then inspired kids often bring their families back to go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing, or canoeing. The center is committed to never turning away visitors who cannot pay the full membership price, and has built a substantial base of four thousand households, undoubtedly in part due to the welcoming and exciting atmosphere that their website describes:

  • We want to get you outside! We love helping people have positive outdoor experiences and don’t mind at all if your experience starts by borrowing our equipment.
  • We don’t have sugar. Remember when you had to borrow a cup of sugar (or milk, or doughnuts) from your neighbor? Well, just substitute “kayak” for “cup of sugar.” We’re really just trying to be a good neighbor. A neighbor who shares lots of stuff.

Individual parks also have a role to play in forging connections with health. The Medical Mile, which winds through Little Rock, Arkansas’ Riverfront Park, is a good example of how parks can actively tout their contributions to public health. It is accented with motivating and informative information about the benefits of exercise, good nutrition, and smoking cessation. The Medical Mile is part of the 14-mile Arkansas River Trail, perfect for those who want to gradually ramp up their activity.

In an upcoming series of posts, we will excerpt a new report from the Center for City Park Excellence that looks at the specific relationship between health and parks, how individual parks – and entire city park systems – help people be healthier and more fit.  The report details more than 75 innovative features and programs – including 14 case studies – that maximize a park’s ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health.  We will show you how today’s efforts to design urban parks for their health benefits and to create health-enhancing park programming close a circle that extends all the way back to the beginning of the parks movement.

[1] Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge Environmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (5), 1761-1772

Please Be Seated: A Review of the Book “Site Furnishings”

I am a people watcher. As a native New Yorker, I’m positive it’s in my blood. I’m sure most city dwellers get pleasure from the simple act of observing other people, although I never stopped to think about what makes this urban exercise so much better: street furniture.

I also did not realize how complicated it is to get these amenities right.

The furniture items are benches and chairs, and also trash receptacles, tables, umbrellas, transit shelters, planters, signs, smoking receptacles and lighting fixtures. Their creators must balance aesthetics (they are designers after all) with practicality and usability. This is the topic and mission of Site Furnishings: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Selection, and Use of Landscape Furniture and Amenities by Bill Main and Gail Greet Hannah.

Starting with a single, Yogi Berra-type quote from pioneering people watcher and sociologist William H. Whyte – “People tend to sit where there are places to sit” – the 250-page book goes on to describe all aspects of the process to develop a landscape with the proper amenities. Without landscape amenities, places would not have the character and more importantly the usability that many of us take for granted. Of course, there are different measures of the success of a place – “Teenagers looking for a space to hang out have different needs than do office workers looking for a place to set up a laptop,” the authors write – and different amenities serve different purposes. But most spaces are called upon to serve the full spectrum of the general public, young, old and middle-aged included.

Much of the book is focused on how key components of public spaces dictate the design and arrangement of fixtures. Designers must work around central objects, anticipate programmed activities, and consider the sun in the placement of landscape amenities. (Sitting places for summertime lunch need shade, while other spots might offer full sunshine for those cool, low-sun-angle fall and winter days.) Because it is difficult to create these places in the landscape itself, it’s all in the amenities. (A later chapter discusses materials and installation methods.)

But it is the management of these amenities and their spaces that is key.  Even the world’s most beautiful plazas and parks get run down – some of them much sooner than they should. The book goes over maintenance, the control of skateboarders (by installing small stainless steel knobs in stone seat walls), keeping “undesirables” moving, and providing general safety for citizens. But one chapter was not enough; the topic deserves more in-depth coverage. Moreover, the main management case study, Bryant Park in New York City, is extraordinarily well-funded but perhaps not an example that is easily replicated across the country.

Despite that shortcoming, the book is admirably specific and in-depth. It serves as a reference to the design professional, yet it maintains a language that is accessible to the public. And it may help answer the question of why I find some spaces so great – and others so terrible – for people watching.

Road Closures: A Driving Force for Park Visitation

We’ve written before about city parks that close roadways for use by pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers, and more. Closing parks to cars actually has been shown to increase visitation, which may come as a surprise to some. Some of the more famous examples include JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, and Kansas City’s Cliff Drive.

We’re hoping to harness the collective expertise of our readers to keep up to date on current trends in park road closures.

Is your city considering a road closure in a park, either permanently or for certain days of the week or hours of the day? Let us know by posting a comment below.

Thanks for your input!

Fairmount Park and Coolidge Park Are April’s “Frontline Parks”

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes two “Frontline Parks“ to promote inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship across the country in the face of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay.

April’s selections highlight the positive changes good parks bring to cities.

Park improvements can be cost-efficient catalysts for urban revitalization.  Small-scale improvements spur greater civic engagement, leading to even more neighborhood improvements outside the park boundary.   At the other end of the spectrum, some cities have converted entire swaths of industrial or commercial lands into park spaces. Once-secluded riverfronts have become urban front yards, and derelict spaces in central business districts have become green community anchors.  These changes have stimulated even greater retail, cultural, and commercial investments while serving as new centerpieces of civic pride.  This month’s featured parks demonstrate how change, both small and large-scale, can create parks that transform communities.

Having some fun in the California sun

Fairmount Park's universally accessible playground

Fairmount Park in Riverside, California is a 250-acre refuge designed in 1911 by the Olmsted Brothers firm.  Like many older parks, Fairmount Park experienced decades of decline and deterioration.  The rise in crime and homeless encampments kept residents away.  Ten years ago, the city and its citizens decided to take back their park.  After a series of physical improvements and new cultural programming, residents returned to the park by the thousands.  Building on that success, the city and partners such as The Arc of Riverside County, created a 25,000 square-foot Universally Accessible Playground.  This change has inspired a new gold standard for inclusion and assures that all its citizens can fully enjoy Fairmont Park.  Site furnishings in the park were manufactured by DuMor Inc.

Summer Movies

"Finding Nemo" at Coolidge Park

Coolidge Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee was once a military reserve unit site.  Today, the seven-acre park on the north shore of the Tennessee River serves as the centerpiece for revitalization in that area of downtown Chattanooga.  The park includes attractions such as outdoor stages, an interactive fountain, and a restored antique carousel.  Programming includes the city’s annual Fourth of July Concert and Fireworks and many other outdoor programs and festivals.  The park is connected by pedestrian bridge to the city’s successful south shore green space development that includes Ross’ Landing and the Tennessee Aquarium.  Since Coolidge Park opened in 1998, a cultural district and residential development have blossomed adjacent to it.  By changing the use of the riverfront property to an urban park, Chattanooga has created an economic engine fueled by good, green fun.

Frontline Parks is generously supported by DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.