How UW-Madison managed rec field project responsibly

When we first told the campus community that we were interested in installing a synthetic turf system over 300,000 square feet that is known on campus as the “Near West Fields,” the initial reaction by many was one of shock. After all, it was a very large space to consider doing such a project; almost 9 acres total. It hadn’t been done to this magnitude on the campus before, and not at all for the 98% of students that are not Division I athletes. More importantly, the site is located in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, an area around the shores of Lake Mendota on the southeast portion of campus. We knew entering into this project the conversations were going to be very sensitive about this idea, and in order to move it forward, we had to embrace the environment in addition to all of the programmatic considerations. In short, we had to do our research and homework and be able to provide answers to every question about how this project could impact the campus and its surroundings, positively or negatively.

Do your research!

As we started our research, there were some key findings that we felt we could positively impact the campus and we felt the need to tell that story early on in the process. As we studied the benefits that could be gained with a new synthetic turf system, we needed to address the present-day issues we currently deal with every year.

Storm Water: To say the natural grass site drained poorly would be an understatement. A few tenths of an inch of water would regularly knock out at least one full day of play — if not two. Any more than that and we knew we would have to let the students know their games would be cancelled for the majority of that week to allow the fields to dry out. As we studied the synthetic turf project, the process of removing the organic soil before installing the sub-base for the turf allowed us to consider a storm water retention system under the field. Through an Environmental Impact Study, we learned this system could withstand greater than a 100-year rain event before water ever pooled on the synthetic turf system. It also allowed for controlled discharge into nearby retention ponds, and ultimately into Lake Mendota. This benefitted not only our turf facility, but also the surrounding areas of campus, as the retention ponds serve as storm water sites for the surrounding landscape and facilities as well.

Light Spill: Synthetic Turf wasn’t the only upgrade to this site, as we also studied lighting and how it impacted adjacent buildings and the “night sky” around the field. The present-day system of shaded metal halide lights on 80-90 foot light poles was visible and impactful to adjacent facilities, including a large greenhouse just south of our site. We worked with our vendor to study how much spill this lighting system created, and then studied how we could not only improve the lighting for our participants on the new surface, but also decrease the light spill into the surrounding facilities and improve our night sky compliance to the community. We learned from this study that the addition of a shaded LED light system would significantly increase safety to our participants on the field by increasing the foot candles for night play, and also significantly decrease — and almost completely eliminate — spill to the nearby facilities and landscape. The addition of LED lights to this project became a must for us, and will be a win-win for the participants, campus, and surrounding environment.

Turf System: Our students have complained for years about the condition of our natural grass fields on the campus. Regardless of how much funding we put into a maintenance plan to keep the grass growing, it just has not worked. We do not have enough space, and within the first few weeks of the semester, what grass we could grow in the short off-season turns to solid dirt. We knew that in order to meet the program demands of the students, we had to consider a synthetic turf system. But could we do it responsibly? Could we meet the responsibility to the environment? We felt we could, but needed to spend many months doing our research to answer those questions. In the end, we also did an Environmental Impact Study to make sure we met those expectations. Anyone that has paid attention to the debate surrounding SBR (crumb rubber) knows that there has been a lot of controversy that surrounds this product on synthetic turf. While there have not been any significant findings to date about the negative impacts of SBR, we wanted to be proactive from the start and ensure the campus we were committed to finding the most environmentally friendly system possible. Given the close proximity to the lake and the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, we also wanted to make sure that we had a system that would not allow the migration of any infill product to the surrounding retention ponds and lake. It became apparent early on that we wanted to avoid any controversy at all costs, and started down the road of researching all non-SBR products for our system. Our goals for this infill were created and documented as:

  • Safety: The safety of our participants is paramount. With the increased attention and focus on head trauma, we were very intentional about studying the pad under the turf and those options, the turf itself, and the infill. Our goal was to have the safest system possible for our participants.
  • Overall playability: We knew this facility would have multiple activities, including flag football, lacrosse, rugby, soccer, softball and baseball and wanted the activities to play as naturally as possible. This was key in our research.
  • Environmentally Responsible: We wanted a system that would stand up in an Environmental Impact Study as not impactful to the surrounding area. We asked questions about all types of infill on how it could impact animals, fish and humans alike. We even went as far as to do water tests to see which alternative infills floated to see if that infill could drift off the site. We also studied if the infill would be harmful if swallowed.

In the end, we wrote the specifications in our RFP to address all of these issues to get the safest, most environmentally safe, and most playable system for our participants.

Communication, communication, communication

At UW-Madison and like many universities, the approval process to do a project like the Near West Playfield Upgrade is extensive. We were required to present to many groups and receive approvals, including: Campus Planning Committee (twice), Joint West Committee (four times), Board of Regents (twice), UW System (multiple conversations), State Building Commission (twice), and Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. In addition to that, we took it upon ourselves to offer up, in some cases repeated presentations to our student government committees, student organizations, sport club programs, university departments, community groups, the Madison Sports Commission, and many others we could list. Our goal was to get out in front of the communication. We wanted to address all questions and concerns, and make sure the entire campus community was educated and prepared for the project. We feel strongly our willingness to communicate our master plan has been a driving force behind its momentum. – by John Horn is the director of the Division of Recreational Sports at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.