Pondering Artificial Turf in Bandung: Contesting The (Ever)Green Turf on an Indonesian City Square

Synthetic turfed area infront of Masjid Raya Bandung (image credit: A.Kelana)

Synthetic turfed area in front of Masjid Raya Bandung (image credit: A.Kelana)

After some months of high anticipation the renovation project of Bandung city square finally came to completion. The renovation project was said to be funded by a consortium of property developers as a part of CSR efforts. The city square called Taman Alun-alun, is a historical landmark that fronted the most important and historical mosque in Bandung, Masjid Raya Bandung. Like many Indonesian cities, Bandung lacks of comfortable and safe open spaces. Ridwan Kamil the mayor of Bandung, who is an urban planner and architect before he took the office, has made some tremendous progresses and initiatives around the city to make the city more livable. He created some new public parks, incorporated detention basin into some existing parks, revitalized some river promenades and many others. Like his other initiatives, the newly renovated city square is warmly welcomed by the people.

The city square which covers an area of 22.000 square meters though is curiously covered with synthetic turf. The square was a barren dusty field that previously covered with natural turf. It is no wonder that the sight of lush green field is welcomed with high enthusiasm. Families come in big group to do picnic, group of friends come to enjoy the new hangout place, people from out of town also come to check out the new attraction. Visitors treated the synthetic turfed area as they would with a giant living room. True to Southeast Asian fashion, before stepping on the turfed area people would take off their foot wear so they don’t dirty it and those who do not do as such are frowned upon.

Bare feet on synthetic turf (image credit: A.Kelana)

Bare feet on synthetic turf (image credit: A.Kelana)

Whilst most of the reviews have been nothing but encouraging some people are rather critical. They questioned and criticized the mayor’s decision to use synthetic turf as the ground covering. Such turf which is also known by many names eg; artificial grass, fake grass, faux lawn, is of course not known to be particularly eco-friendly and economical. The mayor, citing some technical reasons answered the queries. He pointed out that the city square is sitting on a two story deep underground parking facilities. Using natural turf would add substantially extra load to the concrete floor slab as new layer of soil has to be laid upon. He further said that the synthetic turf is more durable than the natural turf as it will last at least ten years. As for the cost concern, he stressed that as the project was funded entirely by donation, the renovation cost should not cause city budget any harm. One city official further explained that the synthetic turf was also chosen due to relatively low maintenance.

Synthetic turf has been around since the 1960 and it gained popularity since it was installed in the then newly constructed indoor sports stadium Astrodome in Houston, Texas. The lure of evergreen turf with minimal maintenance and no watering needed seem to take the world by storm. Soon synthetic turf started to make appearances in many sports field, lawns and even inner courtyards around the world. However with the rise of environmental and health consciousness, people soon learn that not everything is as good as it seems. It was soon discovered that synthetic turf often causes turf burn or skin abrasion as a result of friction between skin and the surface when athletes slide into and over it. Apart from that, synthetic turf is linked to many sport injuries as apparently it provides less grip than natural turf. Hygiene is also an issue as such surfaces harbor bacteria when not watered regularly. Some communities in Los Angeles reportedly ban the use of synthetic turf due to risk of lead poisoning. Synthetic turf which uses recycle rubber tires in the form of crumb for in-fill is also banned in California due to health concern. The tire crumbs are found to contain volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs) with carcinogenic potential which may increase the risk of cancer. It is believed that when inhaled or absorbed through skin such content may cause serious illnesses in children. (It is worth to note that not all synthetic turf varieties use in-fill. It is commonly used for sport field turf)

From environmental point of view, the decision to use synthetic turf of course can be considered as far from ideal due to many reasons. Synthetic turf is known to be a common contributor to ‘urban heat island’ effect. The synthetic surface heats up during sunny days thus creating an unpleasant micro climate. In sporting activities it can increase the risk of heat stroke and dehydration. The heat is also reported to release potentially toxic miniscule particles into immediate surrounding. Furthermore there is a concern that the surface contains chemicals which can pollute ground water when wash away and seep through the ground via surface water runoff.

Whilst environmentalist can cite more drawbacks of the synthetic turf, manufacturers will be quick to defend the eco-friendliness aspects of their products. Most eco-friendly claims however are based not on the merit of the product itself but based on the idea that the synthetic turf is not real turf thus it requires no watering and no fertilizers. It is true that synthetic turf requires no watering thus it help to save water consumption specially when used to cover a large area in place of natural turf. It is also indisputable that synthetic turf needs no fertilizers or even pesticides thus it is kinder to the earth in that way. However it can be argued that such ‘eco-friendliness’ claim can also be used on other non-turf ground covering such as concrete screed, concrete pavement and others but they don’t necessarily warrant the eco-friendliness of these materials.

With the advance of technology and knowledge, manufacturers have invented so called eco-friendly turf varieties for example one that is made of materials such as recycled plastic bottles and soybean plants. A new type of in-fill that is made from organic material has also been invented. It is claimed to be more environmentally friendly and it supposedly does not heat up as much as the usual in-fill. Such trend could spell a better future for synthetic turf. However, as for now the decision to use synthetic turf in any cases should not be considered as part of ‘going green’ effort. In the case of Bandung, with all fairness the mayor has never claimed that his decision was based on such consideration but rather based on practical and technical reasons.

For better or worse synthetic turf is here to stay. It is our duty as a consumer and decision maker to make an informed decision and to remain critical to every green claims made. It also pays to get familiar with different variations of synthetic turf which cater different needs and functionalities to avoid costly mistakes. Furthermore it is wise to investigate whether the manufacturers practice cradle to cradle business mode. One of the biggest concerns of synthetic turf is of course that eventually it ends up in landfill.

About the author

Devisanthi Tunas is the co-founder of www.greenasiaforce.com, an online platform which promotes sustainability awareness and green building solutions in tropical context. She is a Singapore based architect.