Close to 100 students, faculty and community members rallied Tuesday against the University of Toronto’s decision to replace the natural grass in the open space behind University College with two synthetic field hockey pitches.

Last November, University College faculty and students first learned of a plan to replace the open green space behind the College, bordered by Hart House and undergraduate residences, with two fenced-in field hockey pitches at a cost of $9.5 million, $1.7 million more than the original estimate.

These pitches will be used when Toronto hosts the Pan Am games in the summer of 2015. Ground breaking is scheduled to begin this summer.

“We’ve been told that many people were consulted about this project,” said Alan Ackerman, an organizer with the Keep the Back Campus Green campaign and a professor of English at U of T.

“But in fact everyone here was totally surprised when we learned only two or three months ago about this project.”

The natural grass field is used not only by U of T students and faculty, but also by the wider community.

“As soon as this field is covered with synthetic turf it will be a very, very hard field,” said Ackerman. 

“Basically pavement covered with plastic. It will rip out the 36 inches of soil, replace it with a sterile fill, cover it with porous asphalt, polyethylene and nylon. This will create a huge heat impact in the city.”

And establish a field limited to field hockey only. No soccer. No rugby. No picnics. Nearly 12,000 square metres of green space will now be devoted to one sport.

“This field will have to be treated with a biocide to prevent algae from growing on it and will have a very fast runoff of water after storms,” said Ackerman.

“So it won’t be the same open access field.”

At approximately 100 feet, the new lighting structures will be 30 feet higher than they are now.

Suzanne Akbari, a professor of English and Medieval Studies at U of T, is another key organizer with the Keep the Back Campus Green campaign. 

More information on the campaign can be found on their website as well as the group’s Facebook page here.

An online petition to the University’s president can be signed here.

“The petition is a tool to use, but not the only tool,” said Rosario Marchese, NDP MPP, Trinity Spadina.

“But that doesn’t have the same impact as each and every one of you calling someone in the Premier’s office to tell them what they’re doing here is insane. What we want to do is keep this space green accessible to all.”

A simple message.

“And we have plenty of time to do that,” said Marchese. “But don’t just rely on one or two people to do that job for all of us.”

Everyone needs to write a letter or make a call within the next two months.

“We’ve seen too many walls going up in this city,” said Jonah Schein, Environment Critic, NDP MPP, Davenport.

“It seems sadly ironic that while we welcome people from across the Americas to Toronto, we’re going to be reducing people’s access to healthy living here.”

By fencing off an historic field and turning it into a rubberized, gated stomping ground.

“This is a heritage field,” said Stephen Scharper, an associate professor in U of T’s department of Anthropology and School of the Environment.

“The trees are heritage trees over 100 years old, brought over from England and planted in a special ceremony.”

Ackerman made it clear that Keep the Back Campus Green supports student athletics and the athletes who compete for and within the University of Toronto.

“We want it to be a win-win situation,” he said. “We want this field to be well maintained for them to play sports on.”

In contrast, the proposed synthetic fields have a maximum life expectancy of 10 years and an annual maintenance cost of over $100,000. 

(In the first year alone, the maintenance costs are estimated to be $140,000.)

“Which means they’ll have to tear it out and replace it with another surface,” said Ackerman.

Instead, Keep the Back Campus Green would like to see the Ontario government work with the University to create a new natural grass soccer pitch that could be used as a practice field for Pan Am teams during the 2015 games.

And later on be used for men’s and women’s university soccer, rugby and football teams. Or those who want to play frisbee or softball.

“We want a properly maintained field for student athletes, for intramural sports,” said Ackerman.

“But one that also respects the heritage of the University of Toronto and also the natural world that we’re living in.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.