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U of T’s unsafe grass and mud have no heritage value

With everything else going on in Toronto city politics these days, an attempt to designate the grass and mud on the Back Campus Playing Fields at the University of Toronto as "a cultural heritage landscape" to prevent their improvement with artificial grass may not have grabbed the headlines.

It should.

On June 11, Toronto's 44 councillors will vote on such motion. If passed, it will prevent the University from hosting the 2015 Pan Am field hockey and Parapan Am soccer tournaments on the Back Campus Playing Fields and creating a lasting legacy of much safer and accessible fields for students and members of the community.

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Put aside the fact that the motion is being introduced at the very last minute, without any consultation with the University, without a single staff report on the legal, financial and recreational implications, more than four years after City Council agreed to seek the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, and more than a year after the University's Governing Council overwhelmingly approved the project.

The fact is that what is being planned will actually preserve and enhance the historic use of the fields for the University and city. For more than a century, the primary cultural heritage on the Back Campus Playing Fields has been sport and recreation–training and competition, the preparation of physical educators and coaches, children`s sports camps, and spontaneous physical activity and play, at every level of ability from beginner to Olympian. I can document that as a historian, and I can attest to that from at least 55 years of direct personal experience as a student, coach, teacher and administrator.

The landscape of the Back Campus will remain essentially the same. No trees will be cut down. There will be no permanent stands, inflatable domes or taller fencing that will impact the view of the historic buildings and trees that surround the site. No biocides will be sprayed on the fields. The project will provide attractive new pathways, new fencing and new planting.

After the Pan Ams, every current use, including soccer, other types of football, ultimate, baseball, lacrosse and other sports; informal recreation, spontaneous play and the occasional non-sporting event such as summer films, will go on as before.

All that will be changed is the surface of the field. There is no archeological value to the soil. The project will replace the tired grass and mud with the best playing surface available, artificial grass, to the tremendous benefit of students and the community.

Given the usage of the Back Campus and the Toronto weather, it's impossible to keep grass as a multiuse athletic surface these days. No matter how much the University invests in re-seeding and re-sodding each spring, the fields quickly turn into mud with the first fall rain. When the mud dries, it becomes hard and rutted. The fields have been condemned as unsafe by Ontario University Athletics, have necessitated the cancellation of a once-popular women's field hockey intramural league, and have produced an unacceptably high rate of injuries. The only way to preserve adequate grass fields, as the Toronto Football Club does at BMO Field and the City does at Christie Pits for Toronto Maple Leaf Baseball, is to limit access.

But U of T needs to increase – not limit – access to the Back Campus Playing Fields. There are 58,000 students on the St. George campus and huge waiting lists for intramural teams. Artificial grass will enable three times the participation, with significantly less injuries. Every other institution is turfing their fields for the same reasons, including the City of Toronto and historic private schools such as St. Michael's and Upper Canada College. Think of the benefits Toronto residents have gained from the artificial turf at City parks such as Earlscourt, L'Amoreaux and Cherry Beach.

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The unintended consequences of this motion would be to ignore the students of today and tomorrow and diminish the heritage of sport and physical activity on the Back Campus, at a time when young people need it the most.

Vigorous sport has always been vital to the student experience at U of T, and I believe we owe it to our students to provide them with the best possible facilities. Upgrading the Back Campus Playing Fields with artificial turf will do that.

I strongly urge City councillors to defeat the motion.

Bruce Kidd is Warden of Hart House at the University of Toronto. While a University of Toronto student in the 1960s, he trained on the Back Campus. He was twice elected Canada's Male Athlete of the Year.

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