PREST: Turf war needs artificial intelligence

This column has been amended since first posting.

One of my favourite things about living on the West Coast is also, for a few hours each year, one of my least favourite things.

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Back when I was growing up in small-town Alberta I would throw myself every year into our outdoor soccer season, which lasted, on average, 64 minutes. Well, that’s what it felt like at least. The season would start when all the snow finally melted sometime in April and be done a couple of months later for summer holidays. It was always my favourite time of year, but for the other 49 weeks I would stare with great envy over the Rocky Mountains towards that mystical faraway land known as Vancouver where kids could play soccer outside all year round.

What a paradise B.C. must be, I thought, to be able to play soccer in January. Then I moved out here as an adult, signed up for a men’s league team and experienced the joy of soccer in September. Glorious. And October was great too. And, OK, November is a little chilly and a little rainy but we’re still outside and this is great, right?!

And then it’s January, and three degrees out and pouring rain and you’re soaked to the bone and you can’t feel your fingers and you just did a header and are now bleeding all over the six-yard box. Red card.

This is fun? About as fun as brain surgery on a sailboat.

Why did they decide to play soccer in this relatively mild yet still sometimes quite unpleasant winter?! Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something.

Now I feel even worse because I’ve brought children into the equation – at least two or three times a year I’m coaching my son’s team outside in freezing rain, forcing the kids to face conditions that would make a crab fisherman blanche. And oh, the complaining!

Not from them, of course. From me. The kids don’t care – they happily keep playing until a finger or two falls off, and even then they are fairly easily cheered up with half a cup of hot chocolate.

The other oddity that struck me when I arrived was the predominance of artificial turf fields. This is the rainiest, most temperate part of the country. Shouldn’t this be the grass capital of Canada? (Wait, don’t answer that question, man.)

The question, in fact, is answered for you the first time you play on grass following a few days of famous Vancouver rain. Because grass fields in rainy season are mud fields, and mud fields are always closed by parks departments, and people that play on closed mud fields: 1) get really muddy 2) get roughed up by parks department goons.

In my experience as a coach it’s the youngest players who get knocked by this the most. When they can’t play on soggy grass fields – which happens a lot – they are forced to move to the weirdest invention yet: the gravel field. I’d never seen a gravel field before coming to Vancouver. They are not fun, but they don’t cost the parks department time or grass so they have no problem with sending a bunch of six-year-olds out into a soggy Siberian salt mine to play soccer and then pick little rocks out of their kneecaps.    

So what’s the final solution? Artificial turf. It’s weird but true – it’s the best solution to keep the Vancouver advantage alive and play outdoor soccer all winter long. When downpours close the mud-grass and the gravel gets extra sharp, the one relative refuge is an artificial turf field that will really only shut down in a Noah-like flood or if it snows a lot. It’s the place you want to be on the most sleety Saturdays of the winter season.

I bring this up because the District of North Vancouver is currently debating whether or not to add a second turf field to the growing sports complex at Inter River Park. There’s been vocal opposition from nearby residents who are lamenting the loss of trees in the area if another turf field is added to the one that is already approved. And I get it. I love trees too!

The district says that if it does build the field some 130 trees will be lost but more will be planted and all existing trails will be preserved.

Consider this a plea from those little players. You know what’s easy to find nearly everywhere you go on the North Shore? Huge swaths of trees! That’s why we love it here.  There’s a forest one block from my house, another one block from my work. I’d say you’d be hard-pressed to find a location on the North Shore that is more than just a few blocks away from a beautiful grove of trees.

You know what’s not so easy to find? A playable soccer field on a wet Sunday morning.

If you don’t build it at Inter River, find another spot and find it quick. And then build a few more fields while we’re at it. The North Shore Girls Soccer Club and North Van FC are two of the largest sports clubs in Canada, with more than 7,000 players between them.

The kids – soccer, football, lacrosse, field hockey – spend so much time alone staring at screens, don’t get in their way when they want to get outside – even when it’s freezing – and do something together.

Editor's note: This column has been updated to correct an earlier version that incorrectly stated the grove of trees in question was located on the site of an old landfill. The landfill was located just north of the site in question in Inter River Park. 

Andy Prest is the sports editor for the North Shore News and writes a biweekly humour/lifestyle column. He can be reached via email at aprest@nsnews.com.

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