East Boston’s Porzio Park sounds alive on summer afternoons, with the swooshing of airplanes at nearby Logan Airport mixing with children’s laughs and kids shooting hoops.
But it’s the newest addition to that cacophony that’s sparked gripes from some neighbors — as it has in so many other parts of the country.
Welcome to the pickleball wars, Massachusetts.
Pickleball, one of America’s fastest growing sports — more than 36.5 million people played the game from August 2021 to August 2022, according to the Association of Pickleball Players — is huge in Massachusetts. The New England Pickleball Facebook group, which has more than 2,500 members, features regular posts about local pickleball meet-ups and leagues. Cape Cod institutions like Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club now offer pickleball lessons. Devout pickleballers congregate at South Boston’s PKL, an indoor pickleball parlor, where courts run as high as $100 an hour. This week, Fenway Park is hosting a multiday pickleball tournament.
A cross between table tennis, badminton, and tennis, pickleball features a Wiffle-like ball and smooth paddles, and is played on a smaller court than tennis. Devotees, many of whom skew older, say the sport has brightened their mood, fostered newfound community and relationships, and helped them stay active.
According to the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, pickleball advocacy has led the office to paint pickleball lines on existing tennis, street hockey, and basketball courts around the city — creating multiuse spaces. That’s as it should be: By responding to changing recreational tastes, the city is staying true to the purpose of public parks to serve everyone.
Still, the sudden addition of new lines — and the arrival of new players — on existing courts can feel like a hostile takeover, even recreational gentrification (grandma-entrification?). That’s what happened at Porzio Park. First, residents used tape to plot pickleball lines on a court, but the amateur taping caused issues for children playing street hockey. After an investigation, the city painted permanent pickleball lines to accommodate the game alongside others — a move that aroused the ire of some neighbors.
Indeed, the purported zealotry of so-called “pickleheads,” and the characteristic thwacking noise of pickleball paddles, has created something of a national backlash.
Wellesley’s Recreation Commission took up local pickleball problems earlier this year, requesting community feedback on the topic. One resident wrote to the commission that she is “being assaulted by pickleball noise.” Another, summoning up the harshest language available in Wellesley, said there are “some days where the pickleball people are a bit pushy.”
And because it’s Massachusetts, the courts are involved, too. In Falmouth, where some residents likened the pickleball’s sound to “having a shooting range or maybe a motocross track in your backyard,” opponents funded a sound study, hired an attorney, and convinced a Barnstable Superior Court judge to order the courts closed.
In Boston, the Porzio Park kerfuffle notwithstanding, pickleball complaints to the city’s 311 constituent services center are minimal compared to the requests from pickleballers for more pickleball lines.
Overall, pickleball adherents say the complaints have been blown out of proportion. According to Carl Schmits of the USA Pickleball Association, which tracks local pickleball problems including noise disturbances, less than 1 percent of the over 11,000 USA Pickleball-registered sites in the United States have any record of complaints.
To avoid problems, the association advises local recreational departments and developers to locate pickleball facilities where sound either won’t be an issue or can be mitigated. Through engineering services, they can forecast and model the acoustic footprint of a new court project or an existing court that is planned for conversion into a pickleball court. If the city builds dedicated pickleball courts — parks get bottom-up redesigns once every 10 to 15 years, according to Boston recreation officials — those are suggestions the city should follow.
USA Pickleball is also incentivizing equipment manufacturers to design quieter paddles and balls. This equipment, which aims to significantly dampen the acoustic energy and sound when pickleball meets paddle, is intended for residential areas where sound frustrations could surface. However, as Schmits notes, “we need to be realistic on how low can we go and not change the nature of the game.”
Someone probably complained the first time they heard the pop of a tennis racket or the crack of a baseball bat. But cities shouldn’t let noise concerns stop them from managing parks in a way that responds to the recreational opportunities that residents want. And right now, that means pickleball.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.