Survey says: Natural grass is much preferred to artificial turf
Environmental social scientist studies public’s perception of natural grass versus artificial turf
June 19, 2023 By Mike Jiggens
Artificial turf has had its place in the lives of Canadians for the past several decades, especially in the form of sports fields. Synthetic fields have provided user groups with an additional playing surface in communities whose natural grass fields are temporarily taken out of play for a respite from excessive wear and tear, and they have allowed soccer and football games to go on as scheduled immediately following a significant rain event.
Conversely, they have also come under fire by some athletes who claim the synthetic surfaces contribute to more significant injuries relative to their natural counterparts.
But what does the average person – who is not necessarily an athlete – think about artificial turf? This is a question that has intrigued Dr. Michael Barnes, an environmental social scientist from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, who has been studying people’s perceptions of both natural and artificial turf for the past five years.
He shared his findings in February during a virtual presentation at the Ontario Turfgrass Symposium in Guelph.
“Why does this matter?” he asked. “Turfgrass is all about people. The turf you study, maintain or make decisions about matters to so many people around you.”
Barnes’ study entailed how people use artificial turf, what they think about it, how they perceive its benefits and drawbacks, and what opinions they have about its sustainability.
Before turning his attention to artificial turf, he had visited Central Park in New York City to study how people connected with natural turf, saying the work done by researchers, turf managers and decision makers matters.
More than 6,000 acres of artificial turf surfaces have been installed in the United States alone, Barnes said, and the number is growing. Although it was primarily confined to professional athletic use, artificial turf installations have since trickled down to amateur sports, schools and other uses.
“The growth and installations are estimated to be about 33 per cent in all of North America in the coming five years, and most of that growth is estimated to come from outside of those traditional sports field contexts and into home lawns.”
Despite its growth, artificial turf continues to be plagued by human and environmental health concerns, including the leaching of heavy metals found in the surfaces’ crumb rubber infill. The City of Boston has banned artificial turf installations in city parks, citing PFAS – or “forever chemicals” – as negatively impacting children’s health. Since enacting the ban last November, other cities in the United States have either considered implementing bans of their own or upholding those earlier approved.
“There’s a momentum with this, specifically around health.”
Artificial turf’s social side
Aside from artificial turf’s relationship with athletic injuries and general health concerns, there has been little research directed toward its social aspect, Barnes said.
The study project he directed investigated the use and social benefits of natural turf versus artificial turf in urban settings. Three basic research questions were asked of the study’s participants:
- Use: how individuals might use each surface type differently
- Sustainability: how individuals perceive the sustainability and environmental aspects of each surface type
- Experience: how individuals experienced each type of surface
The study was conducted in two parts, including an online survey among 1,000 participants and an in-person analysis in which 50 people had direct contact with both types of surfaces at a pair of Minnesota parks.
Barnes said most previous studies of artificial turf were focused on use by professional and recreational athletes, but he wanted to get data from a broader population. The online survey asked 1,000 people to rate on a scale of one to seven their likelihood of performing various functions on both natural and synthetic surfaces, with one being “very unlikely” and seven being “very likely.” Those surveyed were asked about how likely they would be to use the surfaces for having picnics, playing with children, playing with pets, playing organized sports, playing recreational sports, for rest and relaxation, for individual exercise, for group exercise, for wildlife viewing and for aesthetic viewing.
Using the same one-to-seven scale, with one representing “strongly disagreeing” and seven meaning “strongly agreeing,” those surveyed were asked how sustainable they considered the two types of surfaces might be. They were asked if they thought sustainable materials were used to attain the surface, if they required fewer natural resources, if they were environmentally friendly and if they contributed to the health of ecosystems.
Identical data was collected from the in-person survey in which people spent time on both types of surfaces that were adjacent to one another.
“But we also added this rich narrative, open-ended data, where after people interacted with each surface. We asked them in an open-ended way how was that for you? What did you feel while you were interacting with them? What were your first thoughts?”
The natural turf field used in the survey was semi-degraded while the artificial turf field was a recent installation. Those who participated in the in-person survey were chosen randomly, and were on site either walking through the park, throwing frisbees or engaged in other activities. All participants were at least 18 years of age and were asked to interact with both surface types by walking on them and touching them.
Both natural and artificial turf online surveys produced numbers in the five-to-six range, leaning toward “very likely.”
”In nine out of the 10 use cases, natural turf is preferred and more likely to be used across the use cases,” Barnes said. “The only one where it’s not is playing organized sports.”
Among those who personally interacted with the two types of surfaces, they were much less likely to want to use artificial turf.
“This is saying that once people interact with it, those ratings go down.”
In eight of the 10 usage scenarios, the preference for natural turf was significantly higher.
Barnes said most of those surveyed online believed natural turf was more sustainable than artificial, adding the only difference was in the use of such natural resources as water and fertilizer.
A similar trend was realized from the in-person survey data. The artificial turf results dropped significantly while the natural turf data remained roughly the same.
“With the artificial, after people interact with it, they view it as less sustainable.”
Barnes picked out some of the narratives from among those surveyed.
“It’s (artificial turf) a lot hotter in the summer, but it drains better after it rains, so there aren’t as many puddles,” one participant responded, noting that natural turf “is cooler and softer to land on. I prefer it over artificial.”
Another survey participant said, “Wishing it (artificial turf) was real grass. The bounce is unnatural, and I wind up with terrible burns whenever I play on it.”
A further comment noted, “Fields are rarely natural anymore, so even playing on one in poor condition feels like a treat.”
Barnes said the project data suggested four takeaway messages:
- Individuals prefer natural turf
- People are more likely to use natural turf across a variety of use cases
- Turf managers view natural turf as more sustainable than artificial turf
- Turf managers understand the main issues individuals have with each surface type
Barnes said now that artificial turf has spread beyond the context of sports fields, more people are engaging with synthetic surfaces. There are places in many communities where artificial turf surfaces make sense, he noted.
The project represented a way for social scientists to interact with turf scientists to help foster better decision making and achieve sustainable green spaces.
“I really think that asking people who use or live near, or who are impacted by the spaces we make decisions about, that what we manage is not only important for understanding their direct preferences and attitudes about what you do on your course or in your park, but also what you’re planning to do.”
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