Researchers Probe Effects of Climate Change on Sportsfield Maintenance Practices

by Cathy Majtenyi, Research Communications specialist for Brock University

For municipal parks and recreation directors and budget officers alike, there has been a collective sigh of relief this summer as Ontario has avoided drought-like conditions.

But the people tasked with keeping sports fields and public spaces looking lush and green know their luck will change at some point.

When summers are hot and dry, municipalities must decide if keeping grass athletic fields lush and green is worth the water it takes to make that happen.

This debate was one of the major issues identified by a Brock University researcher in a study published earlier this year, Climate Change and Canadian Community Grass-Based Sport Fields.

Researcher Cheryl Mallen, associate professor in the department of sport management, and a Brock University team has studied recreation, open spaces, community facilities and other aspects of park management. (Supplied photo)

“One of the key questions that came out of this research was, do you water the sports fields during times of intense drought? Is that where the water should go?” says researcher Cheryl Mallen, associate professor in the department of sport management.

Mallen and her team interviewed directors, managers and maintenance staff within departments dealing with recreation, open spaces, community facilities and other aspects of park management.

There were 16 municipalities stretching from Toronto to Niagara Falls represented in the study.

The research team asked participants a series of questions centring on awareness of climate change impacts and strategies to address the impacts.

Participants were generally concerned with widely varying seasonal conditions such as winters that are extremely cold or mild, and they considered summer as a major concern with either lots of rain, drought conditions or a combination of the two.

Respondents also pointed to the presence of new pests and moulds brought about by warmer temperatures and unusual precipitation patterns as troubling new trends.

Topping the list of how to deal with climate change was the question of whether or not to water fields during dry times.

“I found a real polarization,” says Mallen. “Some groups indicated that they are watering the fields to the extent that they can keep those fields beautifully green, so that the players totally enjoy playing sports on these lush fields.

“On the other hand, you have sports fields managers who are saying, ‘Our people have already adjusted; they know that the grass is going to be browner. They are adapting mentally that this is what you play on and it’s OK and you can still have a good game of soccer.’”

At issue is the cost of watering fields.

“The debate is: Do you want your taxes to go up to have green grass on sport fields?” says Mallen. “Some municipalities are saying, ‘We’re trying to be very responsible with our money and stay within our budgets,’ and other areas have more money, so within their budgets they have more to water their fields.”

The payoff for green fields, says Mallen, is that they attract sporting events, resulting in more direct and indirect revenues for surrounding communities.

Mallen is also working on a comparative study with sport management researcher Greg Dingle at La Trobe University in Australia, a country that has been battling droughts for more than a decade.

There, participants report being uplifted by watered fields, saying that green sport fields bring about positive feelings in people and bind communities together.

Mallen’s research uncovered a number of innovative measures municipalities are implementing to keep their fields as green and healthy as possible for dry times. During the off-season, some protect sensitive areas such as goal creases and centre field by planting seed, surrounding them with hay bales and then keeping the areas covered during the winter using tarps. New technology in aerating tools, along with the use of carefully selected grass seed variations has helped. And during the season, some municipalities have taken to shifting the position of goals and centre field to avoid burning out the most heavily travelled areas.

CLICK HERE to download a copy of the full report