Skip to content
As climate change fears grow, a real fight for fake grass

EAST ORANGE, NJ – Residents near a small neighborhood park in New Jersey woke up earlier this month to the roar of heavy machinery: A grassy field they had been begging authorities to fix for years was finally in the process of getting a makeover.

Then they learned the details.

The land and more than a dozen trees lining Columbian Park in East Orange, a densely populated town in northern New Jersey, were bulldozed to make way for a synthetic grass football and baseball field and a track racing rubber. Plans also include a play area and stationary exercise equipment, as well as 40 new saplings.

Many local residents whose courtyards are directly adjacent to the park were enraged, joining their counterparts in a growing number of cities across the state and country trying to block the use of a product that was once coveted as a replacement for all the time. for lawns that are more difficult to maintain.

Elsewhere in New Jersey, similar turf battles take place in Maplewood, Westfield and Princeton.

In Connecticut, some cities, worried about the potential presence of chemicals that could pose health risks, have banned turf that uses what’s called crumb rubber made from recycled car tires.

Synthetic turf has also fueled injury concerns. In a sex discrimination lawsuit, members of the United States’ national women’s football team objected to the requirement to play regularly. (Elite international men’s football matches are played almost exclusively on turf.)

After the remnants of Hurricane Ida triggered widespread flash flooding and caused more deaths in New Jersey than in any other state, the argument against eliminating sorbent grass fields like the one in Columbian Park has taken hold. a new emergency. The nation, President Biden warned during a visit to hard-hit cities in the region, must respond to a new reality: a warmer future with more frequent and intense storms.

“It was a mess here,” Marjorie Perry, a developer and builder who lives in East Orange, said of the storm. “It looked like Niagara Falls.”

“We have to cultivate or maintain our green spaces,” she added. “If we don’t, the flooding will recur normally. “

East Orange residents who oppose the removal of grass and trees from Columbian Park said they were concerned the sod installation would increase heat levels in the neighborhood, not contributes to flooding and does not add chemicals to the air that could harm people’s health.

“Removing our only green space by replacing natural grass with artificial turf and cutting down healthy old trees will create a ‘heat island’,” said an online petition that was signed by more than 250 people on Friday.

City officials defended the decision to use artificial turf, saying it was a safe and cost-effective way to improve the dilapidated park, expand access for residents of all ages and d ” Eliminate annual lawn maintenance expenses.

“My administration is committed to renovating this park into a state-of-the-art green space and playground,” Mayor Ted R. Green said in a statement. “We have consulted with key experts in this area and our park plans have been finalized to follow park best practices with the health and safety of our children as a top priority.”

The evidence for the possible risks posed by synthetic turf is inconclusive.

In 2007, a Columbia University climatology researcher discovered that synthetic turf in New York City was up to 60 degrees warmer than grass, with surface temperatures reaching 160 degrees on summer days.

About a decade later, the Environmental Protection Agency began to study artificial turf made with crumb rubber infill, concluding that “although chemicals are present,” human exposure “appears to be limited based on this. which is released into the air “.

But the agency admitted the findings were incomplete, prompting three U.S. senators – Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut – to ask for more money in the year’s federal budget. last to complete the evaluation.

“Communities and parents deserve to know if the chemicals used in these products have synergistic effects and are present at levels that present a risk to health,” wrote the senators, all Democrats.

In East Orange, at least six of the 17 trees that were felled were dead or dying, said Dennis James, the parks superintendent. The rest, he said, were removed because their root systems were said to have been destabilized during the construction of the turf fields, a potential safety risk.

Officials said the city is phasing out all of the city’s natural grass fields.

Some residents with homes near Columbian Park said they welcomed any improvement in what they described as a long neglected and underused park.

“We begged them to do something with this park – beg,” said Lawrence Sweatte, whose house is right on the park. “I see trees in there that should have been cut down a long time ago.”

But Danielle Spooner, who lives opposite the park and regularly walks her dog there, said the city had ignored the environmental impact of the project.

As trees fell behind her on a recent weekday, sending loud reverberations across the block, Ms Spooner said she worried about the health risks to the turf, as well as the less obvious effects: loss of insects, milkweeds and birds.

“Something like this is so priceless,” said Ms. Spooner, 31. “To tell us, it looks like an attack, actually. “

Many residents said they knew the park would eventually be redeveloped, but were unaware that sod would be used or that so many trees would be removed.

Connie Jackson, a spokesperson for the mayor, pointed out that the park’s renovation, including a mention of the turf, was discussed at a community meeting in February. City council approved the $ 4.8 million construction contract in July, records show.

But many neighbors said residents of the 42 single and multi-family homes attached to the park had not been made aware of the impending project or the addition of sod.

“No leaflets,” said Carter Mathes, a former member of the city’s open spaces advisory board whose backyard ends at the park. “No reaching out. No information.”

East Orange, a city of nearly 70,000 residents, is referred to as an “overburdened community” by the state because of its 18% poverty rate and high proportion of minority residents. (About 85 percent of residents are black; 11 percent are Latino, according to census figures.)

An environmental justice law that Governor Philip D. Murphy signed a year ago aimed to protect neighborhoods that had already suffered disproportionate damage from pollution. It demands that the state’s environmental protection department consider existing constraints on public health before granting permits in places like East Orange that have been labeled as overcrowded.

“The hypocrisy of the state’s supposed commitment to environmental fairness sounds like a joke – or at least cynicism – at this point,” said Mathes, who teaches African American literature. at Rutgers University and started the online petition.

Sheila Y. Oliver, Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey, is a longtime East Orange resident; its name adorns the facade of a new $ 41 million elementary school located next to the park.

Although the new park is not controlled by the Board of Education, students at the school will be allowed to use it, Ms. Jackson said. Ms Oliver declined to comment on the renovation of the park.

Improving the park is important in a city where “young people don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to a place to relax,” said Christopher Coke, who oversees the East Orange water department, at the time. from the community meeting in February.

The basements of many homes along the park were flooded in the wake of the hurricane, which has been linked to at least 30 deaths in New Jersey.

Royston Allman, a beekeeper and master gardener who lives about five blocks from the park, said he was concerned the grass could increase flooding and affect air quality.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “You just have to put down the grass, leave a few trees. “

Residents said they repeatedly requested meetings with city officials to discuss the modification of the project as they noticed contractors had started work.

After most of the trees were felled, Mr Mathes said they were offered a meeting date: October 6.