Homeless in Vancouver: Spread of fake grass is worse than any ills it is meant to cover up

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      It shocks me to see that some Vancouver property owners are so desperate for the appearance of a healthy, green lawn that they are turning to artificial, plastic grass.

      So far, I can only point to eight such instances on Vancouver’s West Side and one in Mount Pleasant, but that is already nine too many in my eyes.

      My friends tell me they have seen many such installations of artificial plastic turf in other parts of the city.

      As much as anything, it shocks me that no one else in Vancouver seems particularly shocked, or even bothered, by this trend.

      The friends I have talked to about it are not particularly troubled to see the artificial turf.

      Neither, apparently, are the newspaper columnists that I read, nor the Vancouver city council that campaigned a year ago so vigorously against single-use plastic in the food trade.

      Yet I think that this increased use of AstroTurf artificial turf as a kind of environmental cover-up is both awful and awfully unnecessary.

      For no possibly good reason, it threatens to pollute the city with vast quantities of the kind of plastic waste that I thought we were trying to get rid of.

      It is a trend that should be nipped in the bud now, before it has a chance to become the new normal.

      Why the grass is greener on the other side

      It’s not water that makes the turf nearest the building on the west side of the 2400 block of Oak Street more perfect-looking than the grass on the city’s road verge.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      It’s no secret that the only grass with a bright future in Vancouver is sold in licensed cannabis dispensaries.

      Between watering restrictions, the armies of walked dogs out doing their doody, and the endemic chaffer beetles that crows especially “dig”—not to mention the ever-diminishing spring and summer rainfall—the grass on private property and city boulevards and road verges no longer grows reliably thick and green.

      Instead it grows thinner and patchier and sicklier looking by the day.

      Private property owners, at least, are beginning to turf the whole idea of having a real grass lawn.

      Beds of low-maintenance (and relatively environmentally-friendly) gravel that replaced the beleaguered grass along a commercial property on Spruce Street.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      A custodian for one commercial property in Fairview told me that it was because of the dogs being walked in the area that all the grass fringing the building had been replaced with beds of (ha ha) pea gravel.

      In addition to dogs, another dire threat to the grass across Vancouver are the chaffer beetle larvae that now infest almost all lawns.

      Not only do the larvae kill the grass by attacking and eating the roots of the sod, but birds and other urban critters root up the sod to attack and eat the larvae.

      A crow cocking one leg, poised to strike a chaffer beetle larvae in the admittedly lush-looking grass in front of the Vancouver school board offices on West 10th Avenue.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Crows especially seem to see Vancouver lawns as a sort of all-you-can-eat smorgasbord.

      The artful scavengers can be seen spending hours digging up the chaffer beetle larvae (not to mention the lawns) using their beaks and sometimes one leg. (With a leg sometimes also used to apparently help get the grub down their gullets.)

      There have been countless legitimate news stories going back three years and more detailing the havoc that dogs and chaffer beetle larvae are wreaking on Vancouver lawns.

      At least one of the “news stories” that I turned up in an Internet search was actually a thinly disguised ad for a Vancouver company promoting synthetic turf as a solution to crow’s beaks and dog’s urine.

      As Canadian author Naomi Klein explained in a section of her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, entitled “Disaster Capitalism Complex”, companies have grown adept at profiting from disasters.

      In that sense, the marketing of artificial turf to home and business owners is all of a piece with the marketing of sunscreen and bottled water.

      This leads directly to the other thing that is arguably helping spell the death of Vancouver lawns and that is the gradual effects of climate change.

      Rain, rain, going away

      Ten years of spring into summer in Vancouver, showing an overall drop in precipitation.

      Over the past decade, Vancouver’s spring and summer periods have gradually seen less precipitation and more heat.

      According to annual precipitation totals from February 26 to July 25, for the years 2009 through 2019, Vancouver is having its driest spring and summer period in a decade.

      Over the 21-week period in 2019, the city recorded 227 millimetres of rain. This is a 25 percent decrease over the same period for 2018—which saw 304.4 millimetres—and more than a 54 percent drop from the 499.99 millimetres in 2017.

      The linear trend in rainfall over the decade is a drop of 35 millimetres—from 360 in 2009 to 325 in 2019.

      Over the same period of time Vancouver has also trended hotter, although only by about 1°C.

      Property owners didn’t get the memo-slash-bulletin

      Artificial turf gracing the edge of a bank on the southeast corner of Arbutus Street and West 4th Avenue.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Whatever confluence of factors is encouraging the spread of artificial turf—lack of water, abundance of heat, dogs, chaffer beetles, ubiquity of cheap ethylene plastic thanks to LNG fracking—It doesn’t appear that city hall is doing very much to discourage the spread.

      It has to be said that the City of Vancouver did issue a short advisory bulletin in 2016 on the subject of artificial turf in the public realm, under the authority of the director of planning, which states, off the top:

      “The Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability, and Development Services, Building and Licensing departments will not approve artificial turf installations on private property”.

      The two-paragraph bulletin goes on to state bluntly that “artificial turf is not permitted on private property.”

      The main objection given is that that the plastic turf is not deemed to have “fully permeable characteristics, as per Site Coverage regulations in the Zoning and Development By law”.

      Otherwise, artificial turf is “not consistent” with city “plans, by-laws, and strategies aiming to protect and enhance ecosystems while improving access to nature for all”.

      These include the Citywide Integrated Rainwater Management Plan (IRMP), the Protection of Trees By-law 9958, the Urban Forest Strategy, and the Biodiversity Strategy.

      Rather than banning artificial turf for intrinsically being unnecessary and difficult-to-recycle plastic, the city’s objections on purely mechanical grounds of poor rainwater runoff leaves the door open for the future approval of an artificial turf design with “fully permeable characteristics”.

      Proponents of artificial turf like to claim that it actually drains better than real grass and that poor drainage is all the fault of poor installation.

      Artificial turf lines the road verge along three-quarters of the south side of the 400 block of West 8th Avenue. Likewise, artificial turf covers the road verge on three-quarters of the north side of the block, in front of Home Depot.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Unfortunately the city’s little-known, two-paragraph, finger-wave of a bulletin hasn’t deterred the installation of artificial turf by a large number of property owners across Vancouver—from small home owners to big banks (the CIBC at Arbutus and 4th) and even bigger chain stores (Home Depot at Cambie and West 7th).

      According to a 2018 CBC News story (which surfaced the city’s 2016 bulletin), the artificial plastic turf is especially sprouting outside condominium buildings.

      That certainly appears to be the case in the condo-rich parts of the Fairview neighbourhood.

      A glaring example of artificial turf on the road verge in the 1200 block of West 7th Avenue, seen August 6th.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Riding along West 7th Avenue on August 6th, west from Cambie toward Granville—a stretch lined on both sides with condos—I noticed no fewer than four instances of artificial turf in the 1000 and 1200 blocks.

      Notably, all of this fake grass was on the north side of the street, which gets the most direct sunlight in the summer.

      We are probably already talking about hundreds of installed square metres across the city of 16 millimetre-thick bi-plastic material—usually polyethylene blades of “grass” bonded to a harder plastic substrate.

      Is artificial turf the last straw, or the next next drinking straw?

      A closer look at the artificial green plastic turf and its brown plastic “underlay” at Arbutus and West 4th Avenue.

      This is not, at present, an easy material to recycle and it is not, so far as I can tell, covered by any of British Columbia’s 17 Extended Producer Responsibility recycling programs.

      Will Vancouver city council, which made such a public show of banning plastic straws in May of 2018—well, it sort of banned them, then put off the ban and is now only planning to ban the “unnecessary” use of them, pending council approval, beginning April 2020 (with various exemptions for health care facilities).

      Will that same city council do anything so public to out-and-out ban the spread of this plastic turf before it covers hundreds of thousands of metres of Vancouver land and thus creates an environmental headache every bit as big (or bigger) than plastic straw use?

      But what am I asking?

      This is the same city government that has been content to allow the park board to cover several city soccer fields that are used by adults and children alike with an even thicker kind of artificial plastic turf that is all the more odious for its use of toxic, pebbled car tires as infill!

      Closing thoughts—caution reminiscing

      One of the things that caused me the most amazement when I arrived in Vancouver in May of 1980, fresh off the highway from my birth province of bone-dry Saskatchewan, was the discernible water content in the air on a perfectly clear day.

      I vividly recall that I began tasting water in the air just a few kilometres after I crossed the Alberta border into British Columbia and I didn’t stop tasting it (or, at least, noticing it) for maybe a year after I was settled in Vancouver.

      In those days, I remember that three of the home truths frequently repeated were:

      • The south coast of B.C. was blessed with a wet, rain-forest climate;
      • Vancouver had an endless supply of the best drinking water in the world;
      • and we had all better put some of that water aside for the big earthquake!

      Except where the earthquake is concerned, people here have changed their tune considerably. Vancouver is instead described as having a moderate oceanic climate, with dry summers, verging on drought in July and August.

      Now, very large numbers of Vancouverites turn to bottled water to quench their thirst instead of the once universally admired municipal tap water.

      And of course, the latest travesty—synthetic plastic grass is beginning to take the place of natural grass across Vancouver.

      Who would have imagined all of this 39-years-ago, when climate change was barely a notion in the public consciousness—and who can imagine what’s next?

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      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer.

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