EAST ORANGE, NJ — Residents near a small New Jersey neighborhood park woke up early this month to the roar of heavy machinery: A lawn they’d begged for years to fix finally got a facelift.
Then they heard the details.
The field and more than a dozen trees lined Colombian Park in East Orange, a populous city in northern New Jersey, were bulldozed to make way for a synthetic turf football and baseball field and a rubber running track. Plans also call for a playground and stationary fitness equipment, as well as 40 new saplings.
Many of the local residents whose gardens directly border the park were outraged and joined their counterparts in a growing number of cities across the state and nation trying to block the use of a product once coveted as an all-weather replacement for harder-to-maintain lawns.
Artificial turf has also fueled concerns about injuries. In a gender discrimination lawsuit, members of the United States women’s national soccer team objected to the requirement to play it regularly. (Elite international men’s football matches are played almost exclusively on grass.)
After remnants of Hurricane Ida caused widespread flash flooding and caused more deaths in New Jersey than any other state, the argument against eliminating absorbent lawns like the one in Columbian Park took on a new urgency. The nation, President Biden warned while visiting hard-hit towns in the area, must respond to a new reality: a warmer future with more frequent, intense storms.
“It was a mess here,” Marjorie Perry, a developer and builder who lives in East Orange, said of the storm. “It looked like Niagara Falls.”
“We need to cultivate or maintain our green spaces,” she added. “If we don’t, flooding will be a normal recurring phenomenon.”
East Orange residents who oppose the removal of grass and trees from Columbian Park said they feared that laying sod would increase heat in the neighborhood, contribute to flooding and add chemicals to the air that could affect health. could harm people.
“Removing our only green space by replacing natural grass with artificial grass and cutting down healthy old trees creates a ‘heat island,’” says one online petition which was signed by more than 250 people on Friday.
City officials have defended the decision to use synthetic turf, saying it is a safe and cost-effective way to improve the run-down park, expand access for residents of all ages and eliminate annual lawn maintenance costs.
“My administration has been committed to refurbishing this park into a state-of-the-art green space and playground,” Mayor Ted R. Green said in a statement. “We consulted with key experts in the field and finalized our park plans to follow best park practices with the health and safety of our children as a top priority.”
Evidence about the potential risks of synthetic turf is inconclusive.
In 2007, a climate researcher at Columbia University discovered that synthetic turf in New York City 60 degrees hotter than grass, with surface temperatures up to 160 degrees on summer days.
About ten years later, the Environmental Protection Agency began studying synthetic turf made with crumb rubber filling, in conclusion that “while chemicals are present,” human exposure “appears to be limited based on what is released into the air.”
But the agency acknowledged the findings were incomplete, prompting three United States senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — to seek more money in last year’s federal budget to fund the complete assessment.
“Communities and parents deserve to know if the chemicals used in these products have synergistic effects and are present at levels that pose a health risk,” the Senators, all Democrats, said. wrote.
In East Orange, at least six of the 17 trees that were eventually cut were dead or dying, said Dennis James, the park manager. The rest, he said, were removed because their root systems would have been destabilized during the construction of the lawns, a potential safety risk.
Officials said the city was in the process of phasing out all of the city’s natural lawns.
Some residents with homes near Columbian Park said they welcomed any improvement in what they described as a long-neglected and underused park.
“We’ve been begging them to do something about this park — begging,” said Lawrence Sweatte, whose house borders directly on the park. “I see trees there that should have fallen long ago.”
But Danielle Spooner, who lives across the street from the park and regularly walks her dog there, said the city was ignoring the project’s environmental impact.
When trees were cut down behind her recently on a weekday, causing a loud reverberation through the block, Mrs. Spooner said she was concerned about the health risks of sod, as well as less obvious effects: the loss of insects. milkweed and birds.
“Something like that is invaluable,” said Ms. Spooner, 31. “Just to take it from us — it actually feels like an attack.”
Many residents said they knew the park would eventually be revived, but were unaware that sod would be used or that so many trees would be removed.
Connie Jackson, a spokeswoman for the mayor, pointed out that the park’s renovation, including a mention of the turf, had been discussed at a community meeting in February. The city council approved the $4.8 million construction contract in July, data shows.
But many neighbors said residents of the 42 single-family and multi-family homes adjacent to the park had not been notified that the project was imminent, or that it included the addition of sod.
“No leaflets,” said Carter Mathes, a former member of the city’s open spaces advisory board whose backyard ends at the park. “No assistance. No information.”
East Orange, a city of nearly 70,000 residents, has been designated as a “overloaded communityby the state because of its 18 percent poverty rate and high percentage of minority residents. (About 85 percent of residents are black; 11 percent are Latino, according to census figures.)
An environmental law signed by the Philip D. Murphy administration a year ago was intended to protect neighborhoods that had already suffered disproportionate damage from pollution. It requires that the State Environmental Protection Department: consider existing tribes on public health before permits are issued in places like East Orange that have been identified as congested.
“The hypocrisy of the state’s supposed commitment to environmental justice feels like a joke — or at least cynical,” said Mr. Mathes, who teaches African American literature at Rutgers University and started the online petition.
Sheila Y. Oliver, Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey, has been a long-time resident of East Orange; her name adorns the front of a new $41 million elementary school that is next to the park.
Although the new park will not be overseen by the Board of Education, students at the school will be allowed to use it, Ms Jackson said. Ms Oliver declined to comment on the park renovation.
Improving the park is important in a city where “youth don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to a place to hang out,” Christopher Coke, who oversees East Orange’s water department, said at the February community meeting.
Basements in many homes along the park have been flooded as a result of the hurricane, which has been linked to at least 30 deaths in New Jersey.
Royston Allman, a beekeeper and master gardener who lives about five blocks from the park, said he feared the turf would lead to more flooding and harm air quality.
“This is very simple,” he said. “Put down the grass, leave some trees.”
Residents said they had repeatedly requested meetings with city officials to discuss the change to the project, noting that contractors had begun work.
After most of the trees were cut, Mr. Mathes that they were offered a meeting date: October 6.