Letters: Say no to artificial turf at Hilltop Park and in Princeton

To the Editor

I am a longtime resident of Princeton, and a youth sports advocate and coach. I believe that sports are a great outlet for people young and old. I believe that our parks are wonderful areas for use by our entire community and that our recreation department does a wonderful job serving our community and maintaining our parks. In fact, we have some of the most beautiful parks and sports fields in the region. However, I am strongly against the idea of plasticizing our beautiful parks with artificial turf and call on our current town council to weigh in by calling a special meeting to evaluate the concerns (environmental, health, and safety) related to this issue. Furthermore, I propose that they adopt an ordinance banning artificial turf from our community parks going forward. This nonsense must end.

Every few years or so, our community is forced to confront the same issue — that artificial turf will better serve our community’s youth sports programs and that we have received a grant or a donation to help pay for it. Every time, claims are made that the “new” generation of turf is safer than the last, that it is cheaper to maintain, and that by playing on synthetic turf, our children will somehow magically develop into world-class athletes. None of this is true.

Artificial turf fields are not conclusively safe: Despite the strides made to make artificial turf fields “safer”, there is no conclusive evidence that they are safe. By now we should have all learned about the dangers of crumb rubber infill, which is made by shredding used tires, which contain all sorts of toxic irritants and carcinogenic chemicals. A chemical analysis conducted by Yale University in 2015 found in its sample of crumb rubber 11 such carcinogens and 20 irritants. www.ehhi.org/chemicals. Next-generation artificial turf fields using newer alternative infills, aside from being much more expensive, are either sand, crumb rubber coated with a plastic polymer, or EPMD. While the industry claims that these are safer than the crumb rubber infills, the plastic coating may be impregnated with an antibacterial called Microban (triclosan), which the FDA has banned from soaps because it has been associated with hormone disruption and antibiotic resistance. Furthermore, with constant play and weather exposure, the plastic coating can breakdown and the insides can then be exposed (think about what happens when you step on an M&M). EPMD, or virgin rubber, is not made from shredding tires, yet it also contains toxic chemicals and carbon black. Research also suggests that all plastics may leach chemicals if they are scratched or heated. Therefore, even if the infill were inert, the plastic blades of grass may also be problematic. So while these alternatives may theoretically be safer, artificial turf fields are not toxin or emission free. Do we want our youth exposed to potentially cancer-causing chemicals? Not to mention the downstream effects on our environment caused by toxic runoff.

Artificial fields may not be cheaper to maintain: The promise of reduced field maintenance costs is a fundamental argument for those proposing installation of artificial turf. However, the costs of maintaining a natural field are only marginally higher than an artificial field, and if you take into consideration the replacement costs, which needs to be done every 8-10 years, natural grass fields are cheaper. www.safehealthyplayingfields.org/cost-grass-vs-synthetic-turf . Furthermore, a quick internet search reveals a multitude of towns that have ongoing litigation costs related to synthetic fields that failed to meet the promised playability or suffered from premature failures sooner than what was promised by the field installers. Once again, natural turf is better.

Once you convert a natural grass field to synthetic turf, you are making a long-term decision: Princeton claims to be a sustainable town. It takes pride in being a “Tree City”. Yet there is no going back once a decision is made to convert a field to synthetics, because once plastic replaces natural grass, it kills any living organism in the subsoil, making it impossible, without years of remediation, to grow anything on that surface. If our fields are in disrepair, a much better alternative would be to use a fraction of the cost of an artificial turf field to rebuild a natural field with sufficient drainage ability to allow play more quickly after major rainstorms. The beauty of natural turf is also enjoyed by all residents of the town, not just the families of soccer or lacrosse players.

A few other thoughts on the use of our public parks: Hilltop Park is the nearest park to a significant percentage of our community living in affordable housing. Building an artificial turf field that will primarily be used by “for-profit” soccer academies seems like a true loss to those who may not be able to afford the expense of participating in them and a major loss of open space for everyone else. Where can one go to have a picnic or to fly a kite? Certainly, one doesn’t want to sit on an artificial turf field. Why are we subsidizing for-profit entities anyway? Shouldn’t they buy their own facilities? Finally, installing one turf field will inevitably lead to calls for others. This is a slippery slope that we should avoid at all costs. We have to decide what we want Princeton to be, a historic town filled with natural beauty or one filled with plastic and parking lots. When all is considered, I believe that natural fields are better for our community.


Jeffrey Bergman


  1. I could not agree more. In this time when our broken relationship with the natural world is causing the climate crisis, the idea that we would chose an ersatz synthetic imposter is obscene, as is giving our young people the impression we’re doing it for their benefit. You want to help the youth? Heal our relationship with the land and its inhabitants.

  2. I appreciate the points being raised in this letter, and agree that the pursuit of synthetic turf fields in Princeton does not appear to be in the best long-term interests of our individual health and the health of the climate. At the very least, more due diligence and discussion is needed. I endorse the idea of a dedicated public hearing on the issue.

  3. 100% agreed! A vote against the proposed project is a vote FOR the environment. It is a vote FOR maintaining the beauty and sustainability of one of Princeton’s most treasured parks. And (most importantly) it is a vote FOR maintaining equity in recreational areas, so that all our town’s children have ready access to natural, open spaces.

  4. 100% agree, and how well this letter covers the important points. Please let’s hope the Planning Commission and town council are listening.

  5. We’re appreciative that this contributor took the time to painstakingly cover (and update) many of the details that have been missing from this recurrent and fruitless debate. It’s disheartening and absurd that this issue has re-emerged. To the decision makers: Please thoughtfully consider these crucial points and keep in mind the “slippery slope” that is so aptly described. This issue needs to be put to bed.

  6. First, and most importantly, thank you Mr. Bergman for your thorough research and very clear description of the pitfalls and true costs – both physically and financially – of artificial turf.

    Second, for the consideration you show toward the many neighbors of Hilltop Park who see it and use it as their most convenient natural true green space.

    Finally, I too am a long time youth soccer coach. First in a suburb north of New York where we raised our family and I coached my son’s soccer team. Then from 2000 – 2015 in the Trenton Youth Soccer League, and at Foundation Collegiate Academy in Trenton. In none of these places did we ever have an artificial turf field. Yet players of all skill levels enjoyed themselves, and some went on to play in college. One Trenton born young man now plays professionally at Rotherham United F.C. in the second tier of English professional soccer, after a three year stint at Manchester Utd. of the Premier League, where he was on the first reserve team and even got into a few first team games. While he did move on from our Trenton Youth League to the Red Bulls Academy at age 13-14, the point is that he developed the skills necessary to move to these levels while enjoying himself with his friends and neighbors on natural grass. He did this because of his dedication to the game, and his parents’ encouragement….. not because of the surface he played on.

  7. It is for me an impossible situation to be unable to have a 2 way conversation on ZOOM at a council meeting where you can talk for 3 minutes,you can not ask each member about what research has been done on this issue. You are not given answers to questions. Council is supposed to represent the people in the community . Unless and until we can have an open forum and hear out each other this whole project should be shelved.

  8. I live on Harris Road across from the Valley Road School playing field. There’s a tiny parklet for preschoolers at the Guyot Walk end of the VRS Field. It’s surfaced with ground rubber bits that slip through the cyclone fencing. Every time I walk past I find myself wondering what they release into the air and why this cute and popular play space, used basically daily year round is not supported by the school or the town. There’s now a trash bin nearby that seems to be emptied regularly, but repeated requests for lights at night have been rejected, explained by a previous Council member as an irritation to neighbors. That’s an easy answer that doesn’t take into account motion-sensitive lights, or lighting that can be directed and not so general as to reach neighbors’ windows. Such lighting would also discourage the sexual attacks that make the Guyot Walk off-limits after dark.

    My point is that thoughtful amenities need support, and help. The human side of our parks needs more attention than cost and efficiency. If life and the quality thereof are not cost-effective, what is?

  9. Locked Out of Hilltop Park Fields

    This north end of town has a high population density, and the fewest parks of anywhere in Princeton. In addition to being central to Princeton Community Village, Hilltop fields are a much needed space for residents living in Copperwood, Campbell Woods, and Old Orchard. None of these communities have open fields or playgrounds. And, it will serve residents of the new affordable housing project on the old Save property, where green space is a mere footnote in its current plans. As a gated synthetic field, this is essentially privatization of public space, which is not so different from New York’s Park Conservancy leasing so much of Central Park to Le Pain Quotidien. This project threatens what we in Princeton understand public space to be. It reeks of neoliberalism. Few will benefit, and so many of us will lose.

  10. @Erin Brennan Very eloquently said. I agree that the project runs against how many of us think of public space and how it should be used.

  11. Well put! Additionally plastic grass is an ordeal to dispose of after 8-10 years. A google search shows cases where towns resort to stashing the expired turf wherever they can find an inconspicuous space. Only to have to find another place when the turf gets spotted by the community.

  12. We have long fought, and lost, this battle over and over in Somerville, MA. I wish you the best of luck in this fight. It’s worth it, and hopefully your community will better understand the serious implications of artificial turf.

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