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.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.