It’s time for London and the surrounding counties to start scrapping golf courses

I have, in idle moments of late, been trying to work out the answer to a slightly niche question: how much land in and around London is given over to golf courses.

It’s certainly a lot. Wikipedia lists 36 of the bloody things in Greater London alone – although even as someone who has never played golf in my life, I can see at a glance that this list isn’t comprehensive, because there’s at least one which definitely exists which isn’t on there. lists 70, and although a couple of these are indoors so don’t count, that list seems to have the same problem. Here’s a map:

The numbers represent the number of courses in particular areas. Image:

And this, remember, is just Greater London itself: the semi-rural counties beyond, which are nonetheless part of London’s functional geography, have plenty more. There’s a stat from housing consultant Colin Wiles which has done the rounds since 2013, hich says that more of Surrey is given over to golf courses than housing. This seems to be a matter of interpretation – as I understand it, it doesn’t count gardens as part of housing, which anyone with a garden may take issue with – but nonetheless it’s not entirely without basis. Surrey has over 140 golf courses. That’s a lot.

And golf courses, remember, take up a lot of space: somewhere between 30 and 60 hectares each (roughly 1.5 to 3 Green Parks). That is a lot of land we are reserving specifically for affluent middle aged men to push balls around on. 

What’s the problem here, you ask? If that’s how someone wants to spend their Saturday, who are we to judge?

The problem is that the land around London is finite and expensive. Land given over to golf is land that can’t be used for housing or jobs or schools. And while some of these facilities may be open to the wider public, many are not. It means that huge chunks of land are reserved for rich peoples’ leisure time, in the midst of a housing crisis. 

I think it’s worth asking whether, in the midst of a housing crisis, this is the best use of a scarce common resource.

There is another way. Glasgow, long considered by connoisseurs to be one of the greatest cities on these islands, has moved to boost its reputation yet further by seriously considering reforesting its golf courses. From the Herald:

The city council earlier this year announced a climate emergency – and an aspiration to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Separately it also launched a consultation on the future of six of its public golf courses, key green space smack in the middle of Scotland’s most densely populated areas.

Now an influential group of councillors has called for the courses – including the 18-hole Littlehill, Lethamhill and Linn Park – to be turned in to forests, wetlands or even allotments if they shut.

Those alternative uses are not housing,of course – from what I know of the Glaswegian housing market, it has a long way to go before it becomes as dysfunctional as London’s. But what those uses all have in common is that they are a lot more environmentally friendly and a lot less anti-social than the previous usage. (Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England has noticed golf courses are, ironically, not terribly green: “As well as taking vast amounts of land out of public access, golf courses are extremely water intensive,” a spokesperson told the BBC in 2013.)

London boroughs, too, have been known to review their golf courses. In 2017, Lewisham closed one of the oldest courses in the capital, Beckenham Place Park, to remodel it as public park land. It’s rather lovely, if you’re in the area. 

There are downsides, of course. The closure of the publicly-owned Beckenham Place was greeted by an outcry from those who wanted to play golf but couldn’t afford membership at expensive private clubs. This is a shame, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the space will be of use to a much wider share of the population as a park than as a golf course. And, at a period in history in which austerity has forced many, many schools to sell their playing fields, it is not clear why golfers should be our first priority when it comes to land use. 

So here’s a proposal: Beckenham Place Park should not be the last golf course in the London commuter belt to shut up its club house. In their current form, these spaces are bad for the environment, and anti-social, and there are too many of the bloody things. Use them for housing. Turn them into parks. Take a leaf out of Glasgow’s book and turn them into forests, even. 

But land is scarce; golf courses are not. There’s an obvious solution here.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.