Four years later, where is the project headed?
By Colette Lauture
A debate over the use of artificial turf has stalled the proposed redesign of Malden’s Roosevelt Park. The ongoing conversation is vast, covering everything from environmental concerns to sports teams wanting more playing time.
Since its inception nearly four years ago, the project has experienced support and pushback. Malden residents have voiced their apprehension and excitement alike for the field’s redesign, the back-and-forth causing confusion about its trajectory.
Debbie Burke, Executive Director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, said that the city is eager to complete the project. With hazardous soil removed, flood storage capacity would be set to improve, and the number of residents who will be able to play on the field will increase. Youth athletic groups, Salemwood School students, and the surrounding neighborhood would experience these benefits.
“The project also responds to climate change by increasing stormwater capacity in a floodplain, increasing resiliency on the field and in the neighborhood…It also reduces water use and increases access to active recreation for all park users,” she said.
A central issue Roosevelt Park currently faces is its years of overuse. Burke explained it experiences maintenance challenges, due to the park’s low-lying location and minimal municipal resources for field upkeep. The proposed improvements, according to Burke, will allow the park to continue its service to Malden and its wide range of users.
Throughout the redesign process, Burke noted that the inclusion of all stakeholders was critical, with the understanding that with Malden’s diverse community it would be difficult to reach a consensus.
Katie Bowdridge, longtime Malden resident and parent, is supportive of the field’s redesign.
Raising three of her sports-driven children in Malden, she was excited when she initially caught wind of the project. Her sons played many baseball, football, and lacrosse games on turf fields in wealthier towns. She saw that even in inclement weather, the field would not be affected.
“It’s okay if it rained in the morning; they push all the games back, [and] we’re still getting that game in,” she said.
Bowdridge also mentioned Roosevelt’s longtime issues with drainage as another reason for support of the project. Citing it as an “ongoing problem,” Bowdridge said that even the replacement of drainage during the construction of the Salemwood School did not ameliorate the issue.
“If you go down there and it rains, you can see the puddles sitting there for days,” she said.
With a turf field, Bowdridge believes that the sports community of Malden would benefit. As recreational, middle and high school sports programs in Malden grow, more space is needed for play on the field. Sports teams that ceased play because of Roosevelt’s conditions may even be able to return, like Malden’s women’s softball team.
Other Malden sports groups have also voiced concerns about Roosevelt Park becoming an unplayable field. In a letter to City Councillor Steve Winslow, Malden resident and soccer player Kim Brookes wrote that she does not trust that Malden can maintain a grass field. Because of weather and erosion to the field’s natural grass, soccer teams cannot play on the “wetland” the field becomes when it rains.
Similar to Brookes, Bowdridge said that having a turf field will give children the opportunity to go out and play, with the field still being available for use during the day.
While many Malden residents and parents are in favor of changing Roosevelt Park to a turf field, there is a growing movement behind concerns the effects this project could have on the environment and the park’s younger users.
A main issue people against turf have is that it raises surface temperatures. This in turn leads to a heat island effect, meaning the surrounding urban and residential areas of Roosevelt Park would experience significantly warmer temperatures. Natural grass helps to naturally offset this through transpiration. With a turf installation, it would not be combative against climate change.
Dave Queeley, Deputy Director of Projects for the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA), cited research that turf fields can get as hot as 140 degrees on a 90 degree day. He added that some municipalities with turf fields installed have now imposed field usage restrictions on hot days because of the high heat concerns.
Queeley also mentioned a project MyRWA completed recently, called Wicked Hot Mystic. Looking at 21 municipalities in the Mystic River Watershed, the project found that neighborhoods that are the hottest are mostly populated by people of color, are within Environmental Justice communities, and were historically redlined like Roosevelt Park’s surrounding neighborhood.
“A core tenet of MyRWA’s work is to have projects seeded and led by residents, so we support resident concerns about turf fields like the one proposed for Roosevelt that can add heat to a neighborhood already impacted by Urban Heat Island Effect,” Queeley said.
Community members are also concerned about turf safety for children. Residents have asserted how unfeasible it is for a manufacturer to recommend that kids wash their hands or take a shower after playing on turf, as well as the importance of mental health benefits that accompany live grass. Potential injuries as a result of turf fields were also mentioned.
In response to these concerns, Bowdridge said the presence of chemicals will happen regardless of if a field is regular grass or turf. With respect to injuries, the reality is that they are commonplace in sports.
“Kids are gonna get injured regardless of the playing surface. We’ve seen kids break an ankle on turf, we’ve seen kids break a leg on grass.”
Kari Percival, environmental activist and Malden parent, bolstered the turf concerns of parents when she tested the heat of a turf field at the nearby Mystic Valley Charter School with her then five-year-old son. When she placed the thermometer into a portion of the field, it read above 100 degrees; it shot up to that temperature within one minute. She noted that her son, standing on the field, became uncomfortably hot.
“That’s just not a safe temperature for anyone, but especially not small children. They have a larger surface area of their body, and…they can get dehydrated faster and they can heat up faster, and they’re closer to the ground,” Percival said.
Percival disagrees that there was enough input from stakeholders. She explained that the city mainly wanted to solve the problem of sports teams not being able to use the park due to the field’s drainage problems, without the input of neighbors or the Salemwood School community.
Among pushback against the project, Debbie Burke mentioned a host of accommodations incorporated into the design of the park. A central tweak of the project was the decision to use an alternative organic infill instead of a traditional crumb rubber infill. This alternative infill, called BrockFill, is engineered and wood fiber, and is fully organic.
“That will lessen the increase in surface temperatures that we will experience with the turf field,” said member of the park’s design team Steve O’Neill at the Sept. 2022 City Council hearing.
In addition to Percival, a coalition of regional environmental justice and conservation organizations recently mirrored concerns of citizens. In a letter addressed to Malden’s Mayor and City Councilors on April 29, plans to cancel the installation of the artificial turf were encouraged, to instead “establish a revised design to install natural grass and properly incorporate neighbors’ input.”
In solidarity with the Friends of Roosevelt Park, the organizations who signed on to the letter included Alternatives for Community and Environment, the Conservation Law Foundation, Beyond Plastics Greater Boston, Friends of the Malden River, Mystic River Watershed Association, Safe Healthy Playing Fields Massachusetts, and Wicked Cool Mystic.
The letter cited previously stated concerns of the heat island effect, costs, dangerous chemicals in turf, and exclusion of key stakeholders from the park’s planning. It also included the inconsistency of the city adhering to its own code on prohibiting impervious, or watertight, surfaces in open space.
“According to the city’s Open Space Plan, Roosevelt Park is permanently protected Open Space, and the City’s Code requires that ‘All Open Space shall be pervious.’ Both the Synthetic Turf Council and the EPA define artificial turf as impervious, because ‘the rainwater it collects is most often redirected into the rain sewer system instead of being allowed to percolate into the soil,’” the letter writes.
Malden resident Karen Buck, speaking as president of Friends of the Malden River, pointed out that the city recently launched a Climate Action Plan and hosted a Green Malden Fair, pledging to take an “all-hands-on-deck approach to combating climate change.” The city has supported the Malden River Works’ move to build a climate resilient waterfront park on the Malden river.
“How can the City of Malden justify building a natural solution climate resilient park in one part of our city and then install a plastic heat island (synthetic plastic soccer field) in another densely populated part of the city?” she said.
Despite fierce arguments in support for and against the redesign of Roosevelt Park, community members on either side share the sentiment of wanting the best for the youth of Malden. Speaking on the project as a whole, Percival said that she thinks it is important to remember that Roosevelt Park does not solely serve the sports population.
“Actually it’s doing a lot of other jobs than just being a soccer field. If you artificially turf, it can only be a soccer field. But if it’s living grass, it can have time for games and also continue to cool the neighborhood, provide better air quality, [and] provide…a natural green space.”
Bowdridge said that community members in favor of natural grass need to take into account the amount of people who are in support of turf.
“This is a city park. And I think sometimes that gets lost, there is a school there now. But it is a city park and because we have heard from all of the youth sports leagues in the city of what the need is, we have to look at the needs of the city as a whole, and not just a small group of individuals.”
In terms of where the project is headed next, Mayor Gary Christenson drafted a memo in late March requesting additional funding for the proposed renovations. The funding contains two parts: $1.3 million would accommodate increased cost estimates due to changes brought on by market volatility and growing funding sources, with an additional $1.2 million compensating for the possibility of excavating three feet of toxic soil below the field. This depth increased from the originally proposed 15 inches. The current cost estimate for the project is $4.8 million.
The costs were discussed further at a Finance Committee Meeting on April 25. Debbie Burke and Alex Pratt, Malden’s Strategic Planning and Community Development Director, provided more information to the committee regarding the requested funding.
The pair explained that in 2019, the base plan of the project was to use crumb rubber infill, with improvements limited to the field itself. In September 2020, the budget increased reflecting accommodated design changes to the project, one of which included increasing the proposed natural grass area by shrinking the size of the synthetic turf. Pratt explained that the $1.3 million would get the project to being built as is.
Ward 7 Councillor Chris Simonelli expressed his confusion at the funding request during the meeting, voicing that he was left with the impression that the redesign plan would stay as is, with the addition of the toxic dirt removal. He also commented that if such far lengths are being made to accommodate these costs, a price to place natural grass down might as well be considered.
Looking beyond the debate, Burke said this project will be beneficial for Malden’s youth in the long run.
“This was a matter of equity, rooted in the belief that Malden children—no matter their race, class, or background—deserve every opportunity that their peers in wealthier communities receive.”
Whether children and Malden residents end up playing on turf or natural grass remains to be seen.
The title for this article was changed from the original posting (“To Turf or Not to Turf”) due to the definition of “turf” which can indicate both natural and synthetic.
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