Turf war: Artificial grass sprouts along Vancouver streets despite city disapproval

Artificial turf is sprouting along sidewalks in Vancouver, mostly outside condominium buildings, because owners say it looks good and is easy to maintain. Opponents say it's ugly and not good for the environment.

"We do get complaints from people that find the artificial turf to be unattractive, tacky,' says city offical

A piece of artificial grass installed on Bute Street in Vancouver. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

If you took a stroll along some downtown Vancouver streets you might notice some perfect-looking grass, almost carpet like, along streets and sidewalks.

That's because it's made to look that way. It's artificial, but green and lush just like the real stuff only made out of polyethylene plastic. 

Synthetic grass is sprouting in the city, mostly outside condominium buildings, because owners say it looks good and is easy to maintain.

Opponents, though, say it's ugly and not good for the environment.

And the City of Vancouver has not supported its use on private property since 2016.

'It's tacky'

"We do get complaints from people that find the artificial turf to be unattractive, tacky, they don't like it and it is in public space," said Brad Badelt, the city's assistant director of sustainability.

An artificial grass strip in Vancouver is shown next to another section that has no cover. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

The city does not consider artificial turf to be fully permeable, meaning water may not pass through it properly to irrigate trees and potentially increase run off.

It also says artificial turf does not mesh with the city's sustainability plans around rainwater, trees and biodiversity — all aimed at protecting and enhancing ecosystems, "while improving the access to nature for all."

Proponents of artificial grass say natural grass requires too much care, effort, water and fertilizer. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Homeowners Association of B.C., said many of the artificial grass installations in Vancouver are outside condominium buildings. He said owners like the material's durability, low maintenance and cleanliness.

"You know in the wintertime it gets really muddy," Gioventu said referring to natural grass strips. "It really does wear quite heavily."

Advocates of artificial turf say it has many benefits. The material doesn't need to be watered and requires no chemicals such as pesticides for maintenance. They also argue it's good for pets because artificial grass keeps animals cleaner and bug free.

Dave Abbott, the president of Precision Greens, which installs artificial grass, says the company has laid down two million square feet of artificial grass since across western Canada since 1999, including residential backyards.

"You're not having water run off with fertilizer and chemicals going into the storm drain," Abbot said about the material, which costs, on average, $12 per square foot.

A crew of workers from Precision Greens installs artificial grass at a property in Vancouver. (Dave Abbott/Precision Greens)

Abbott says he would do a lot more business in Vancouver if there wasn't the threat of reprisal from city officials. In 2016, the city issued a notice explaining why it does not approve the use of artificial grass on private property.

"The only reason why any projects are going on at this stage right now is at the risk of the homeowner wanting to proceed despite the city bulletin," he said.

A Precision Greens installation in Langford B.C. (Dave Abbott/Precision Greens)

The City of Vancouver enforces reports of unapproved installation of impermeable surfaces on private property, which include artificial turf.

Investigations usually follow complaints and can result in a letter asking the property owner to remove the surfaces and restore landscaping within 30 days.

Failure to comply with the letter could result in an order. Ultimately cases can be referred to the city prosecutor, which could result in charges against the property owner.

Since Jan. 1, the city has issued one letter and five orders in relation to artificial turf installation.

'No ecological value'

Badelt says ultimately, the greatest knock on artificial turf is that at the end of its lifespan it must be ripped up and discarded in a landfill.

Weeds grow around this artificial grass installation on Jervis Street near Robson in Vancouver. It's unclear when this grass was put in but installers like Precision Greens say their product lasts between 20 and 25 years. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

He also says the materials don't allow enough water through to properly water trees or even absorb storm water like a natural lawn could.

"Artificial turf really provides no ecological value," he said. "Lawn doesn't provide a ton of ecological value either but its certainly better than turf."

Meanwhile Abbott defends his product, mostly constructed in China or the U.S., saying it is permeable, lasts 25 years and helps with drainage.

He's been trying to meet with city officials to relax rules around its use.

The city uses synthetic turf on 11 of its 153 playing fields.