One Perfectly Good Park
Riposte – By Sumner Burstyn.
Take one perfectly good park. In fact more than good. A park with broad playing fields and picnic areas, trees to climb and bushes to hide in, with a pond and Pūkeko and flax and a wetlands restoration project and pathways winding through and around. Welcome to Michael Park Reserve.
This perfect park is a swath of fresh green and open space in the densely populated suburb of Ellerslie in Auckland. A preschool, primary school, intermediate and high school let out onto one boundary. The school manages organic gardens and all their grounds are organic. Just along is the Sisters of Mercy. Their community and early childcare centre’s, respite care home and housing for nuns all border the park. Their grounds are organic and they run a celebrated community permaculture garden.
The park that has been managed without sprays of any kind since 1994. Small houses and brick units surround the majority of the boundary. Many of them have little gates that let onto the pathways. People of all ages and stripes play informal soccer and rugby and cricket there, kids skateboard and run, local sports clubs use the fields, parents sit and gossip by the swings and small children learn to ride their bikes there.
And then the Auckland Council had a brilliant idea. Dig up all the playing fields and replace them with artificial turf. This will, they say, alleviate a shortage of playing fields and better service the needs and benefit the health and well-being of local young people.
Ron Armstrong the contractor from Tiger Turf refused to answer questions about his artificial turf product. Instead he referred us to the international corporate owner of the artificial turf technology. They in turn refused to answer questions, suggesting we look up independent’ information from their industry lobby group the Synthetic Turf Council or FIFA the international soccer federation.
Auckland Council also refused to answer direct questions. Instead they supplied a press release complete with a bucolic image of a couple of muddy boys kicking a ball on a wide-open natural grass field.
John Gillon has been researching the products and the politics of artificial turf for some years. He’s an elected Local Board member and seems to be a lone voice in the fight against the astroturfing of Auckland’s public green spaces. He says there is an attitude within Auckland Council that synthetic surfaces are an upgrade to natural grass that will allow more kids to play. “But of course it isn’t an ‘upgrade’. It’s more akin to concreting or tarmacking the park.”
Gillon comments that once installed artificial playing fields are fenced off to prevent unauthorised access. Access is then limited to certain approved sports codes and their club members.
Michael Park Reserve is like all public reserves and parks in New Zealand – it’s free and open to everyone. There are no restrictions on who can kick or bat a ball, who can run or play there. But the groundwork is already going in for a 1.1 metre high fence around the ‘new’ playing fields.
Benedict Collins the council’s PR guy says user charges for parks have not yet been finalized. “A major study is being started and will take around 18 months to complete,” he said.
But given the council plans to spend approximately $85 million over the next ten years on increasing sports field capacity the outcome of the study is obvious. Gillon describes it as a form of privatization by stealth.
Artificial playing fields create a number of issues. One is overheating. The council says artificial fields perform very much like natural grass in terms of player experience and the performance of the ball. But dig deeper into their information and they admit that overheating is an issue but minimize it by saying players just need to take a break from the field every 15 minutes in summer.
Health issues such as superbugs also abound, not to mention the organic status of special places such as Michal Park Reserve. Gillon points out that covering large swaths of ground kills off the microorganisms that live in the soil beneath, making it very difficult to transform back into natural grass later.
Karen Affleck is head teacher at the Michael Park kindergarten. She says the entire school community is playing catch-up with Auckland Council and the changes taking place before their eyes. She says the while Council first notified them about the possibility of artificial turf in 2008 they omitted to explain they require extensive use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. She says because the school fought for and had won a no-spray policy for the entire park they assumed it would be respected and did not object to the artificial turf when it was first mooted.
So what will the ground at Michael Park reserve be made of? Collins explains that first a compacted gravel base is built. A 10mm rubber shock pad is then laid, followed by artificial grass, made of polyethylene. The fibres in the artificial grass are then filled with a mix of crumbed rubber and sand. The crumbed rubber is manufactured in New Zealand from used tyres.
Used tyres are of course a toxic waste product. Crumb rubber contains materials such as zinc and lead. It’s known to migrate on feet, through wind and runoff. It can leach into ground water or be inhaled or absorbed through direct contact. In addition to heavy metal levels crumb rubber crumbs give off noxious gas such as a variety of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
However Auckland Council says disposing of used tyres is a big environmental problem with the solution often being burning or landfill. An artificial field contains the rubber from over 20,000 recycled tyres.
The council PR sheet states the wetlands will be unaffected but does not mention how any of the known issues will be mitigated or how they might affect the wetlands and native habitat full of Pūkeko and other wildlife.
In terms of spraying they side step the issue, omitting even the word ‘spray’ choosing instead to describe it as a ‘customised maintenance schedule’ to ensure the likelihood of moss, mould, algae and weed growth is minimised.
In addition there is the need to control bacteria as the field will have blood, sweat and urine deposited on it during use and by animals and birds.
On top of all that there will be that mechanical grooming once or twice per week and a preventive application of approved product/s to control bacteria every six months. However the Council says that experience elsewhere in New Zealand suggests that it may be possible to reduce applications for control of these to less than one per year.
Aside from the obvious fact that none of this was necessary when the field was made of natural grass – here’s where it gets confusing.
Auckland Council has assured the school they have identified environmentally friendly, naturally derived, organic products for the control of moss, mould, algae, fungus and bacteria. And yet every piece of industry-generated evidence they have supplied to justify the safety of the artificial field relates solely to the use of non-organic pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. In all the mass of local and international information there appears to be no studies on the use of organic sprays used on synthetic surfaces.
From the sidelines of the artificial turf battle one of the problems is just how much the public has misunderstood what artificial grass really is. In some way in our collective mind we associate it with mini-golf and fun times. And most of us are unaware of its role and purpose in creating user pays environments.
In reality replacing grass playing fields with artificial turf is the concreting and privatizing of our urban community green spaces. It is a tragedy to fence off public parks to all but paying sports code. It is the end of your kid kicking a ball in a park with his mates. And in so many ways it signifies the end of that kiwi lifestyle so many of us still hold dear.
As pressure for infill housing grows a place like Michael Park Reserve may be the only nature and free running space some kids get.
The extreme irony of replacing a natural environment with an artificial and then trumpeting it as a form of recycling seems lost on Auckland Council. The truth is all parks and playing fields slated for ‘upgrading’ will in essence become toxic waste dumps.
If we want a truly livable city as Mayor Len Brown says we do then the astroturfing of Auckland has to stop and those parks that have already been lost must be returned to the people.
- If you want to protest the destruction of Michael Park Reserve please let Mayor Len brown know directly. firstname.lastname@example.org
- Or sign the petition: Activism.com petition Michaels Ave Reserve