Golf Wars

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Houston Parks and Recreation Department

Patrons have become as scarce as plaid slacks at many city-owned public golf courses, which led writers Peter Harnik and Ryan Donahue to wonder about the future of the land-grabbing sport, especially in increasingly crowded, park-hungry cities. What they found and reported in LandscapeArchitecture Magazine (June 2011) is that urban planners are remaking these green spaces to appeal to a host of new users, including runners, cyclists, soccer players, swimmers, boaters, gardeners, dog owners, and concertgoers.

Once upon a time, strong demand and high greens fees pumped golf revenue back into municipal hands, but no longer. Private courses have siphoned away devoted golfers, resulting in an average 7,000 fewer rounds played annually per public course. The city space, which requires expensive staffing and upkeep, now drains precious resources. And the average course, which eats up between 100 and 150 acres, simply requires too much public land, argues San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council executive director Meredith Thomas, especially since “other forms of recreation like field sports and off-leash dog areas are bursting at the seams.”

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans repurposed 520 acres that formerly held four golf courses. The area now features a boardwalk, a dock, a meadow concert venue, a nature trail, and a well-used walking and jogging trail. National City, California, is considering converting a course into a park with a soccer field, a restored creek, and a community farm. And at the University of California, Berkeley, a landscape architect assigns his students to remake San Francisco’s Lincoln Park Golf Course into a profit-generating space. “Among the proposals that have emerged,” write Harnick and Donahue, “are urban farms, bamboo forests, green cemeteries, aquifer recharge facilities, abalone farms, and municipal-scale composting facilities.”

It’s not always about ripping up the greens, though. Golfers and birdwatchers coexist peacefully at a Cleveland course that is now certified as an Audubon International Certified Gold Signature Sanctuary. In Houston, runners advocated for and got a trail around a city course. In a Washington, D.C., suburb, golfers under fire for a driving-range expansion responded by agreeing to make the facility more wildlife-friendly. And some cities are simply setting aside certain times for folks who know nothing about bogies or mulligans to use the greens as a park and picnic space.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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