The Battle Over Back Campus

Mark McConaghy breaks down the political stakes involved in the University of Toronto’s decision to turf a vital piece of green space in downtown Toronto. Although seemingly a simple issue of field quality, the proposed turfing cuts the very core of questions of democracy, public space, and community life in Canada’s largest urban center.

In April of last year, the Governing Council of the University of Toronto decided to turf over back campus, a large stretch of grassy space that borders the northern end of U of T’s campus. Along with the circular patch of green that makes up front campus, back campus is one of the two major quadrangles that form the core of the school’s traditional spatial footprint in downtown Toronto. The campus’s eclectic collection of Victorian, Gothic, and Richardson Romanesque buildings, as well as its open swaths of lush greenery set amidst Toronto’s screeching concrete jungle, has long made it one of the most revered scholastic spaces in North America. Back campus itself is used daily by hundreds of students for athletic pursuits of all kinds, while urban residents can often be seen walking dogs, lounging on the grass, or sharing an intimate moment with a special someone.

Simply put, the space is an iconic one not just for U of T as a school but for the city of Toronto as a whole.

And now, our school’s administration has decided to pave over the field with turfed plastic. The rationale, which can be found in detail here, is a desire to build two state of the art field hockey fields on the space, which will be used as an event site for the upcoming Pan-Am games. The planning committee for the games is willing to donate 56% of the construction costs of the fields, which will run to the tune of 9.5 million dollars. The money and its tie in to the games explains the university’s desire to move ahead quickly on the project, despite a “consultation” process that was unknown to most members of the university. Indeed, most people in the university community did not know about the plan until governing council had already voted on the matter, making it a fait accompli. The university’s claims of exhaustive community discussion before taking the decision ring hollow on that account alone.

Needless to say, when a piece of industrial plastic is threatened to be laid over a beloved green space in our country’s most important urban core, stake holders of all kind are going to react. There has been outrage, petitions, and planned protests, as well as editorials from prominent university members urging the administration to reconsider. In its combination of issues of space, access, community interest, and the power of a centralized administration, the back campus issue is a test-case for democratic process at our university.

Would You Want to See This Grass Turfed?
Would You Want to See This Grass Turfed?

I lived at Massey College for 3 years, which sits just across the street from back campus. I have held the hands of partners I’ve loved dearly on that field, walking in intimate silence amidst the silver hue of a cold midnight. I’ve dived into back campus‘ muddy potholes during early spring ultimate frisbee games. And I have taken many leading international scholars on tours of our campus, stopping at back campus to tell them about the history of our great institution.

I know that field well. I love it dearly. So it is safe to say that yes, I have an interest in this fight.

And yet it is precisely because the proposed turfing of back campus raises so much passion that we must proceed cautiously, in the hopes of highlighting what the true political stakes involved in this issue are.

The entire matter, from my perspective, comes down to two issues.

First, do we want synthetic turf or real grass on such a critical part of campus space? The grass has been there for a hundred years. Yes, it gets muddy, cracked, and unplayable after a winter’s wear and tear. Yes, the field needs to be taken out of commission for a couple of weeks every spring for repairs and replanting. Yes, that can be expensive and time consuming. And yes, a turfed field would enable a more unified playing surface the entire year around.

However, a university has to decide whether or not it values its own history, especially in its physical and ecological forms. To keep back campus truly green is a symbol of continuity to past generations of students, who played on that field, wrote poetry on that field, laid down in splendorous, youthful love on that field, who consecrated that space with their bodies and their desires. To pave that layered history over with synthetic fibers is to lose a link with the past that is written on the very surface of that space. Nobody can roll around with their lover on astroturf; nobody will laze in the summer day on a burning sheet of plastic. To choose grass over synthetic fiber is thus not only to value history, but also to choose the lush verdancy of nature over the hollowed smoothness of industrial production.

It is a choice of what public face the university wants to present to the countless number of potential students, parents, scholars, and citizens of the world who visit Canada’s premier educational institution. Princeton University would not pave the iconic quad in front of Nassau Hall because their field hockey teams need more practice space. Columbia University wouldn’t destroy the stately grandeur of the South Lawn in front of Butler Library because their athletic teams needed more space in the dense core of Manhattan.

So why would U of T, an institution that likes to think of itself as world class, take such a parochial and shorts sighted aesthetic measure?

back campus 2
An Invaluable Link to our Past

Yet regardless of what you feel about the issue of turf versus grass, whose aesthetic and historic dimensions would suggest that preserving the university’s heritage is the right choice, one can have a cool-headed debate on the issue and understand its many different sides. After all, it can be argued that more athletic events will actually be played on the field if it is turf, however much that perspective ignores the non-athletic, leisurely pursuits that would be made impossible if it were to be turfed.

There is one issue, however, that we cannot compromise on, and that is the second major question that the back campus uproar brings up: public access.

Back campus is, as it stands now, open and free to whomever wants to use it. You do not need to sign up with any authority to start a soccer game on its grass. You do not need to swipe a card, buy a time slot, or register with any administration to walk on that space. It is open directly to all people, regardless of class, race, age, or gender. It is used collectively by the people of this city, without any hierarchical body restricting our access to it on any grounds.

It is our collective meadow. And its public use exemplifies the greatest values Canadian society can, at its best, embody: democratic belief in the rights of all people to share in a common legacy of land, resources, and institutions, with all the responsibilities that such a legacy impels upon us.

To put it simply, back campus takes abstract notions of freedom and equality and makes them real and tangible in the space of one open field. It does not symbolize democracy so much as it is democracy in action, and this is the key point.

A Democratic Refuge in the Stratified Urban Core
A Democratic Refuge in the Stratified Urban Core

Regardless of whether there is turf or grass on the field, it must be kept open. It cannot be turned into an athletic facility in which only a select few athletes are allowed in. It cannot be gated up and divided off for the enjoyment of only those who are part of an elite in club, even if that club encompasses the entire university itself. That field belongs to us all- the multitudes of this city, regardless of whether they are students or not.

The most troubling point of the university’s plan is the suggestion, made by the university itself, that access to the new turfed field will be restricted, not only during the Pan-Am games but potentially afterwards as a rental property. While the university has attempted to make assurances that the field will remain open just as before, it has not adequately explained how that will happen with the new fences it will be erecting around the space. The fact that the Governing Council passed the resolution to turf the field in camera- i.e. in closed meeting without any public audience- is a blatant insult to democratic process at the university and suggests that there is something about this project that the university would not want a public audience to know.

In a city in which a house costs over a million dollars, and in which no one but the corporate class can afford to live anywhere near the most beautiful public parks and lush ravine systems, it is imperative that we protect the precious few forms of truly public space that we have. Toronto was carved up along class lines long ago, with the most beautiful stretches of the city- the ravine backed lots of Rosedale and Forest Hill, the elegant grandeur of oak-lined avenues in the Annex, Queen West, and the Danforth- having been rendered utterly unaffordable save for the elite few who find employment in the corporate institutions that dominate economic life in this country.

Back campus is a spatial rebuke to the violent stratification that Toronto’s market economy has forced upon us, one that severs upper class “core” urbanites from working class communities who live on the fringes of the city. Being open to all, regardless of residence or income, the field resists the division that literally carves up communities from one another, making us strangers to each other, as we are marked in class terms by the neighborhood we can afford to buy in.

A Spatial Rebuke to Urban Inequality
A Spatial Rebuke to Corporate Inequality

That field, turf or not, should remain open as it is now. The university must absolutely and unequivocally guarantee that, in writing, and stake its legitimacy upon such a claim.

The commons must be protected.

The real question is: will the university choose to betray the democratic-life-in-action that is back campus? Or will they show genuine leadership and uphold it, even in the face of a corporate gift that will, inevitably, come with strings attached?

Back campus stands as the very embodiment of our best selves. We should keep it that way.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he is actively thinking of ways to integrate his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.

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