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Leveling the Playing Field

2012-06-01, Department, by Maureen Hannan

Aerial View of Turf Field Complex in North Clackamas, OregonCynthia Peters, of Phoenix (Arizona) Parks and Recreation, displays a three-gallon plastic jar in her office showing a cross-section of artificial turf, substrata, and field drainage components. Meanwhile, Chris Alger of the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base keeps a collection of videos of synthetic turf fields in use—as well as a set of small boxes demonstrating the look and feel of various manufacturers’ turf products. Other veterans of turf field projects talk of notebooks stuffed with vendor/product spreadsheets, shelves lined with samples of rubber infill, and tours of college and pro-sports stadiums. Every park and recreation employee tasked with researching and managing an artificial turf field project comes away from the process, it seems, with a set of visual aids, samples, and research tools. Objects gathered to educate stakeholders on the engineering and myriad product options that a single artificial-turf field represents.

Field cost varies widely depending on type of use, regional climate and terrain, and a range of product options. It’s not unusual, though, for a soccer or multi-use field to come in at a price tag of roughly $1 million.  Most departments choose to make that investment to conserve water, to maximize field use, to simplify maintenance, and to prevent player injury. With more options than ever before for turf, drainage systems, infill, and even field graphics, the research, preparation of design specs, and evaluation of vendors can take months of staff time. Not to mention the full-time project management to which many agencies dedicate staff throughout the installation process.

Know What’s Under the Carpet 

Each of the six agencies that contributed to this article stressed research as the key to getting the field that meets the community’s needs. After all, while the turf “carpet” is the part that’s visible, most of what goes into a field lies below the surface—and involves a mix of natural and synthetic elements to allow for drainage and field support. “It’s really important to have a great engineer,” says Michelle Healy, deputy director of North Clackamas (Oregon) Parks and Recreation. “Think about how it’s going to be used. Different turfs [and substrata] react differently to different uses. Especially with multi-use fields, you can end up with a lot of people out there!”
As Phoenix’s Peters shares, lower-cost materials may seem fine at first glance—but particularly when heavy use combines with climate extremes, those cheaper options may lead to field failure.

“[In the drainage system] there’s decomposed granite, drain stone, fabric, compacted earth,” Peters says. “We didn’t do the decomposed granite—just used these plastic things that were supposed to hold up like the decomposed granite and it didn’t. So what happened is, the plastic cracked and created divets in the carpet.” Pulling back the carpet and making the necessary repairs cost the agency $100,000.

Get the Best 

Most agencies begin their search for a vendor by asking for referrals from agencies who have installed synthetic turf fields. “We focused on previous experience with similar facilities. Our finalists had experience with 20 to 25 artificial turf projects,” says John Keates, parks director in Mason County, Washington. “Playability was a key part of it. I wanted someone who knew what it was like to design baseball/softball fields in the Pacific Northwest. And what it’s like to have rain all spring.”

Chris Alger, tasked with planning conversion to synthetic turf at Camp Lejeune, toured throughout the state, video camera in hand, to see firsthand (and to document) the facilities colleges, park systems, and commercial sports complexes had installed. He and his team asked questions, solicited referrals and recommendations, and followed up. “One of our primary concerns was heat, so we took heat-registering guns with us and measured in the shade, measured in the sun…and looked at different options with various infills. I knew we had a one-chance opportunity…and we needed to design fields that would meet our needs.”

All interviewees stressed the importance of involving the community in setting specifications and establishing priorities. When San Diego County, for example, set to work on a comprehensive plan to convert fields to artificial turf, they prepared a set of criteria to prioritize fields across the jurisdiction. (See accompanying article.) While engineers and development staff took the lead in the more technical aspects, the county also got input from field users (mainly leagues and community advisory groups) on their priorities for playability and location. Other interviewees discussed the importance of setting specs early in the process for field graphics for all intended uses—since design firms typically default to a standard graphics schema if they do not receive specific instructions.

Participate in the Process 

It’s not enough to establish excellent specs and choose top-notch contractors. “We were out there every day during installation,” Chris Alger says. And Phoenix’s Cynthia Peters shares stories of running and jumping in goal areas to test the springiness of various infill solutions. “A lot of this is common sense—if something doesn’t feel right to you, you need to speak up,” Peters insists.

Michelle Healy reminds that because many of the options for turf fields are so new, the vendors are still learning too. “Sometimes they’re trying to figure out the best ways to meet their clients’ needs, too.” It’s important to ask questions and take a collaborative attitude—and to have an engineer and landscape architect with lots of experience.

Keep it Nice—and Save for the Next One 

Most vendors offer tutorials in maintaining the fields. But it’s easy to slip into the mindset that low-maintenance means no-maintenance. Invest in good-quality grooming equipment, and ask for vendor recommendations, Healy advises. She also recommends educating field users as soon as possible on how to care for the fields. “We don’t allow sunflower seeds or gum. If that stuff gets on there, it’s a lot harder to take care of.” Healy and others also urge agencies to make sure to set aside money for the eventual replacement of the turf. But, given that a realistic field lifetime is 10 years, setting aside funds from the beginning of a field’s use makes good sense.
“We’ve got hundreds of thousands of users on these fields now,” Healy says, “and we want to be able to continue that.”

Maureen Hannanis Senior Editor of Parks & Recreation.

Accompanying Article 

How We Did It—and How We’d Do It Again 

“You don’t have to know it all in order to do it right,” John Keates of Mason County, Washington, remarks. Keates and others overseeing artificial turf field projects readily shared what they did right and what they would do differently next time.

What We Did Right
• Toured other artificial-turf facilities, asked questions, and took pictures and video.
• Secured grant money well ahead of time.
• Talked with league directors, schools, and community groups who will use the field—and got buy-in from local elected officials.
• Researched and addressed user concerns (typically related to cost, safety, and durability).
• Involved maintenance staff from beginning to end of process.
• Planned for re-investment of funds saved (maintenance and water) for eventual field replacement.
• Tested the subsurface and drainage materials extensively.
• Installed “hybrid fields” where cost is a concern (e.g., baseball/softball fields with artificial turf infields and natural turf outfields)
• Began the process as soon as a season ended—so that field would be ready in time for start of next season.

What We’d Do Differently
• Stay away from cheaper subsurface and drainage materials.
• Plan for convenient storage of sand and infill materials ahead of time.
• Plan with an eye to landscaping, trees, and appropriate barriers—to keep surrounding grass clippings and evergreen needles off field, as well as for aesthetic reasons.
• Remember that the heavy equipment needed for installation will affect surrounding fields. Plan for this disruption.
• Find out what’s underground before installation time.

Accompanying Article 

San Diego County’s Five-Year Conversion Plan 

“It’s nice to understand where you’re going before you start piece-mealing projects.” stresses Jason Hemmens, chief of development for San Diego County (California) Parks & Recreation. Hemmens oversees the county’s ambitious five-year artificial turf conversion plan. It is a plan that prioritizes field conversions according to many important criteria—including the overarching priority of water conservation in that arid region of the country.

“Our plan includes all natural grass fields that could potentially be converted—as well as planned projects,” Hemmens says. “For planned projects, we look at potential acquisitions and future sports fields.

“We have a list of over 20 sites that could be converted at some time,” Hemmens continues. "Those are all ranked by priority. Some of the criteria used to determine priority are demand, where field is located, how many users we currently have on those facilities, and return on investment factors. For example, we look at what the water source is. Is it well water? Are we paying for water? What water district is it in? We look at our maintenance costs. We commingle all of that to come up with a priority system, so if new money becomes available through grants or other alternative sources of funding, we know what the first park on our list is.”


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